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[Page 321]

Kutno, My Hometown

by Mirel ERDBERG-SZATAN, Montreal

Translated from the Yiddish by Murray Citron

Hometown mine, and of R. Yehoshie'le Kutner,
Of Szalom Asz, and Y. Y. Trunk,
Of martyrs Herman Kirszbaum and Chawa his wife —
With a peacock's colors you were alive…

You taught me much learning, the wisdom of sages:
From Herzl to Marx, Tolstoy and the Rambam,
From quarrels of peoples, the wisdom of ages,
And bearing the yoke of my people and city.

Your song was a comfort to me when afar,
A companion, a friend, when alone and abroad,
Over continents, oceans, in moments of time —
It provisioned me always for the road…

Your youth, our hope, our happiness promised
Held back with its confidence sorrow and need,
For a bright morning they planted the seed —
Now all is frozen and wasted in death…

No Jewish children, no Yiddish song,
No Berel the porter, no Yankel the smith,
No Jewish shops, Żelichowski's mill gone,
At sunset no small groups of Jews by the shul…

No sacred writings, not one Yiddish book,
No Jews of Shabbes, no Jews of the week,
No candles, no hymns, no Kiddush, no wine —
Over all hovers the pity of loss.

I stand a mourner, my head bent down,
For you my home, for Kutno, my town.
For Warsaw, Włocławek, Łęczyca, Gąbin —
For hundreds of shtetlech that suffered the same…

For me your sky will always be gray,
Your sun without light, your grass without dew,
Cut off at the root, can there come a day
When my town will be once again new?

Hometown Kutno, shtetl of Poland,
With Jewish sadness and light from Baal-Shem —
On my shoulders I carry your grief and your horrors
And light and destruction for Kiddush HaShem…

*

Shtetele mine, with light from the dawning,
Full once of Jews, shtetl mine,
Now your fate is a call for mourning —
Shtetele mine, you are Judenrein…

For a moment on a grey afternoon,
I heard your painful sorrowful tune.
And I wept inside myself, shtetele mine —
Kutno, my home, you are Judenrein…

Streets all lonesome, dust and debris,
Abandoned houses, no bird on a tree.
The orphaned schoolyard stares at the fence —
No Jewish children with pencils and pens.

My shtetele, my home, with light from the dawn,
You are rootless forever and Judenrein.
Your joys are not to be found, they are gone…
May your name be forever a blessing, a sign.


[Page 322]

Yitgadal V'Yitkadash[1]

by Shalom ASZ

(with thanks to Shai Zontag and family for their great help in the translation)

To my town, Kutno

When the Gestapo men brought Itsche-Meir to the courtyard of the Jewish community in Praga Warsaw[2], it aroused excitement, attention, noise, one might say, even joy among the other Gestapo men, who happened to be in the great courtyard at that time. The camp commander himself, a young man in his twenties, with a small black mustache and small cast-bronze and fossil eyes, came out of his office to greet Itsche-Meir. Since the Gestapo established the community place for Jews in an empty brick building of a school in the middle of a large courtyard, their eyes have seen Jews of all kinds brought here, taken from the street or out of their homes, in order drag them to work. Among them were Jews who wore shorts as a European custom and cleanly shaved beard, masquerading as Aryans and there were kosher Jews with long capotes and shaved beards. However, their eyes had not yet seen such a “Jude” from top to bottom. Judaism yelled out from the whole being of Itsche-Meir in a loud voice. His beard was full, thick-black, glistening with radiant Jewish forces. Its black sidelocks, curling in long braids, were shaking upon the beard of the thick cheekbones. His eyes were big and black, restless. Melancholic. And the very thing about his clothes: a shiny atlas silk coat torn, tied with a belt and the main thing - the traditional white socks, which peeked out of two cracks in his long capote. The Gestapo people stood around him, mostly pleased without knowing what to do with him. They wondered about this fat piece, trembling out of joy. Even the camp commander, his hands stuck in his trouser pockets, looked at Itsche-Meir – and his stubborn severe face was wrapped with a thin smile of contentment that hovered over him. Everyone's eyes were full of pleasure, at the sight of their victim standing in front of them.

— What's your name, Jude?, one of them asked.

— Itsche-Meir Rosenkranc.

— Itsche-Meir Rosenkranc? Nice name! “Rosenkranc[3]!”, the Gestapo men laughed.

— And what's your trade, Jude?

— A Rabbi.

— A Rabbi! Fine trade! And who are you?

Itsche-Meir, who from the moment the Nazis caught him, had closed his account with this world and was ready for anything, was at peace with himself. There was no sign of nervousness in him. Even his sparkling, lively eyes froze in their white-yellowish pools.
— A Jude, of course, replied Itsche-Meir to the question, whose need he did not understand.

— A Jude. of course! That's great!, the Gestapo men continued to laugh.

Only the camp commander refrained his laughter. Again, his face wore severity. He wanted to put an end to the play, but “Jude” is such a best-seller, a real treasure, that he could not control his mind and prevent his eyes from bathing in the Jewish face for another moment. Now the camp commander's face became as serious as a cat's face, grasping a mouse with its paws and examining it with its penetrating gaze. What was missing here, however, was the fear of death peeking out of the mouse's eyes! The Jew showed no fear, no distress. His eyes did not blink, his high stature did not move, his lips did not tremble. He stood as a stone-pillar. The Jew's lack of fear bothered the camp commander in his gazing at the victim, his gazing-pleasure, and made him nervous. Suddenly he reached out his hand and in an instant his fingers grabbed the mid-face hairs of the Jew, clinging to his sidelocks, part of his mustache and the edge of his cheek beard, which abounded and filled his large palm.
— Say: “Jude schwein – habe keine ehre![4]”, shouted the camp commander.
Itsche-Meir repeated after him: “Jude schwein – habe keine ehre!
— Speak louder!

Jude schwein – habe keine ehre!

— Speak even louder!

Jude schwein – habe keine ehre!, exclaimed Itsche-Meir loudly. Then, the camp commander pulled his hand. The hair, however, stood firm in Itsche-Meir's flesh and did not break.

— Damned, said the battalion commander and he pulled harder. The hair was still resisting.

— This is a real Jude! This is a Jewish beard!, said the camp commander out of ridicule to those standing around him, a little embarrassed that the Jewish beard did not surrender to him easily, he put his foot on the Jewish belly, and pulled with all his might.

This time the beard surrendered to him, and the camp commander's hand held the end of a detached sidelock, a part of the mustache and thick tuft of the broad-cheeked beard of the Jew.
— Well, you, please try!, the camp commander pointed to one of his gang at the Jew's beard.
And God forbid, the thing happened again.

A confrontation of forces began on the Jewish beard. Some of them managed to pull out a full hair in two or three strokes but one of them, a Gestapo dwarf, won the competition: one strong pull and his palm was full of a new strand of hair from Itsche-Meir's beard.

Itsche-Meir was still standing on the spot on his white-clad feet. The skin of his flesh peeked through the holes in his torn shoes. In his beard, which was just before full, growing and radiant, large bald spots were visible. The beard was now made of single, scattered sheaves, connected by jets of liquid blood from the wounds, which the uprooted skin and hair-pulling had made on its face.

Itsche-Meir's beard was no longer a beard. It had become a damp lump, like a rag glued to a person's face. Itsche-Meir's eyes, however, were as they were before. And even his whole appearance was what it was. And worst of all — only now did the Gestapo realized that — the “Jude” totally forgot the main thing: to shout while his beard was torn. The camp commander could not decide whether to consider the behavior of the Jew as a manifestation of courage and character, or of Jewish impudence and arrogance. For the former, he was willing to give the Jew credit, but for the latter he wanted to teach the Jew such a lesson that he would forget his Jewish pride. So, he asked Itsche-Meir:

— Did it hurt you?

“A little, sir,” replied Itsche-Meir.

The Jew's answer softened the camp commander a little. However, he wanted to be more confident:
— And who are you?

Jude schwein – habe keine ehre!, said Itsche-Meir aloud.

— A decent Jew! Pleasant Jew!, said the camp commander pleased.

— Well, now let's see what you can do. Tie him up to the cart!

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They led Itsche-Meir to a freight cart parked in the yard. The cart had a man-harness: ropes tied to its sides and leather straps at their ends, as was the custom of Warsaw porters. Itsche-Meir was attached to the cart, and some Gestapo men jumped on and off it. One of them sat on the “stand”, a whip in his hand, and started pounding on Itsche-Meir:

— Come on, Jude, come on!, said the owner of the whip, whipping him.
Itsche-Meir stuck out his high neck out of his unbuttoned shirt and capote. His neck with its large protuberance stretched like the neck of an ostrich. All his big head on the top of his neck seemed, because of the ragged beard, oversized, cumbersome. And like an ostrich he presented and spread his legs with socks, thin as sticks. Itsche-Meir's sandals remained stuck in the muddy ground, his footsteps sinking beneath him. A sweat of fear now flowed from his forehead, and more than that — from his long neck and his protruding bony nape. He did his best to pull and move the cart, which sank because of the heavy load of the Gestapo men on it, with its wheels in the damp ground. But the more Itsche-Meir kept on pulling, the more the cart refused to move. Itsche-Meir tried to change his footing: he once extended his left foot, once his right foot, forward. Here he tried to pull once on one shoulder and tried again on the other. He absorbed the whipping from his lashers, exerted all his strength to pull the cart, but yielded nothing more than the outbursts of laughter aroused by his efforts: the cart did not move from its place.
— Give him another pig to help him!, exclaimed the camp commander, who stood with his hands in his pants' pockets, watching the play. The silent smile of satisfaction that illuminated his face before had disappeared: his face was now wrapped with melancholic seriousness.
From somewhere, they found and took out a second Jew, much older than Itsche-Meir; a man with red eyes from lack of sleep and his beard shaking. They harnessed the Jew on the other side of the carriage. The whiplash now landed on the heads of the two Jews. The old Jew held the harness on one side and Itsche-Meir on the other. Itsche-Meir changed his stance. With all his will, with all the forces that resided in his chest protruding forward, he pulled on the cart. The old Jew tried to do his thing. But the cart did not move.
— Let them feel the lashes!, exclaimed the camp commander.
The whip reached out his hand, and again the lashes fell on Itsche-Meir and the old Jew suits. Itsche-Meir's absorbed the lashes and remained silent, but the old Jew, at each blow that hit his head, shouted: “Oy vey, father in heaven! Oy, oy, mother•, and this stimulated the hunger for laughter of the Gestapo men:
Vey Vey, aba'le! – Oy, Oy ima'le!, the Nazis mocked, imitating the Jew.
And suddenly Itsche-Meir did it. Hearing the laughter of “aba'le-ima'le”, he right away stretched his neck and nape again through the harness, gripped the carriage with his bony fingers, exerted one pull abruptly with his chest, his whole body mobilizing all the forces that were stored in him into his limbs, legs stuck in the ground and sent the body forward — and the cart moved. Itsche-Meir ran, and pulled the old Jew with him.
— The Jew can do it! The Jew can do it!, exclaimed the Gestapo men stamping their feet on the bottom of the cart that was now in motion.

— A decent Jew!, said the camp commander. Let him go!

They released Itsche-Meir from the cart. The torn atlas silk capote was completely wet and where the leather strap of the cart was, a wet streak of horrors appeared, scratched on his chest.
— A decent Jew, an obedient Jew! Group “A”, beard trimming! Let him go, for today!, the camp commander yelled to his men, and he went out of the yard to his office, hands in his trousers' pockets, and did not cast a single glance at Itsche-Meir.
Itsche-Meir was taken and placed against a wall. Immediately afterwards, one of the captive Jews was taken out to him. He, a young man entrusted with this role, trimmed with large dark scissors, the rest of Itsche-Meir's beard, sidelocks, mustache, head hair and laid a complete series of “stairs”. And Itsche-Meir without a beard, feeling as if his soul had been taken away from him and his humanity transmigrated to a beast, was lowered to the prison camp which was underground, a kind of cellar, and here, between damp and mossy walls, he found some of his brothers, some lying and some sitting on sacks of hay, who were taken on the same day from the street and were brought to the crowd-places for work.

Dusk of a precocious autumn day. Lots of Jews were now brought in to the basement room, returning “home” from work. Some young, some elderly: Jews clean-shaven and short-clothed, Jews in long capotes, wearing black Warsaw hats with thin visor. Some of them were, like Itsche-Meir, with plucked and frayed beards and heads trimmed in “stairs”; for others they forgot to trim their beards; while for some, beards had already begun to grow again, others had absolutely no sign of it. The Jews, as they were, threw themselves on the ground. Their faces and clothes were filthy, stained by mud soaked in sweat dripping from their flesh. The Jews lay soundless, only a few of them breathing heavily and loudly, and the loud exhalation sound was even quieter and more stagnant than the silence. Not everyone lay down. Some of them rose and sat, and stayed put. The sitting people all took off their shoes, boots, sandals, and held their feet in their hands. Feet were swollen, wounded, bumped, scarred. As if they had traveled hundreds of miles, climbing mountains, hitting stones. They were inflamed red and as if steam would rise from them. It seemed that these people lying and sitting here, had turned into only legs and feet: they lost every interest in life other than this, forgot their own existence. All the hardships were all gathered in one hotspot, in one great pain, that throbbing pain in their legs. And it was as if the personalities of the people were gathered from all their bodies, from all their souls, and went down, concentrated, attacked, gathered in the swollen feet, conquering all the senses and all the emotions.

Suddenly a voice is heard: Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei raba!

Heads straightened, faces tilted. Immediately, the “feet” were forgotten, as if the people have been torn out of a deep sleep by this “Yitgadal,” which is so well-known, so engraved in the heart, and here so far away, so rare to be heard. They saw a Jew in a filthy, torn atlas capote, a Jewish hat on his head, tied with a colorful handkerchief, as if he had a toothache, standing by the wall, moving in his prayer.

And it was as if the people were recalled by Itsche-Meir's “Yitgadal” into their world that they already thought they had left forever. Over there, on the other side of the fence, while being transferred here; a few among the captive Jews jumped up from their place, releasing their feet from their hands, went to the corner where Itsche-Meir stood, and began to pray with him, swaying. Some remained seated, staring anxiously at the door. Sounds of voices, one, then two:

— Hurry up and finish!

— Fast, fast, before they come!

Quickly, in a hurry, they said the “Kedushah” prayer together, and they went through the last three steps of the “Shemoneh Esreh” prayer before any of them opened his mouth.        

Suddenly, a long whistle went through the space above the heads in the full, crowded basement. The people sitting let go their legs out of their hands and, as much as they could, hurried, snatched and put on their shoes, wore rags to their wounds, got up and went out in arranged columns, two by two, each one with his tin plate. They walked like soldiers, up to the pump in the big yard. They drew water, bathed, wiped their faces and hands with the wings of their capotes, then marched, army-style, to the large, temporarily erected wooden awning with long-arranged benches. Here was the kitchen, where Jewish men and women were preparing big pots of potato soup.

[Page 324]

Everyone was given a plate of soup with a piece of bread and sat down to eat.

Itsche-Meir, with the bandages on his cheeks, walked around like a trained soldier, as if he had been here for ages, so that the Gestapo man, who was having an eye on him, found no excuse to harass him.

Before Itsche-Meir took his slice into his mouth, he blessed it. The beginning of the blessing was swallowed up in his mouth and only its end was heard: “hamotzi lechem min haaretz.”[5]

The Jews who attacked with their mouths like hungry wolves the meager spoonful for which they had longed the entire day, swallowed the spoon with a gaping mouth. Itsche-Meir's blessing reminded them of something. They growled after him, stopped eating. Some of them contented themselves with saying a mere “Amen,” who was growled from their mouths. The Gestapo men, who were standing by the makeshift kitchen, watched as something happened here, but it passed so quickly that they could not realize what it was; the “world” had already dined as always, washed their tin plates — and Itsche-Meir among them.

The next day, before the gray morning went through the inside cellar hatch, the oppressed Jews woke up not to the whistle of the Gestapo man, but to the “Yitgadal v'yitkadash” of Itsche-Meir.

Some got up and did like Itsche-Meir; others waited for the Gestapo man to whistle.

Itsche-Meir was lining up in the courtyard, the rolled-up wings of his cracked capote stuck in his belt and, along with the “A” group, he was taken to work.

They led the group a long way out of town, until they reached a field, where they paved a road. There, Itsche-Meir found already other Jews, who worked in groups under the supervision of the Gestapo.

The road was being paved. One group of Jews dug a pit, others wheelbarrowed the excavated dirt and dumped it on the paved road. A whole line of Jews, naked from their trousers upwards, carried stones on their bare chests that they had taken with their bare hands from a large pile, brought them up to the paved road, and unloaded them there. Other Jews, younger, were hitched to a huge iron steamroller that rolled over the discarded stones to a furnace. Itsche-Meir joined the group dragging stones from the pile to the road.

The Gestapo man ordered him to take off his capote, like the rest of the Jews. He did so. He was ordered him to take off his robe, his “four wings,” his shirt. He obeyed immediately; only when he reached the “four wings”, he lingered for a moment, as one who settles in his mind. The look of the Gestapo man, however, reminded him. He undressed, remained standing only in his trousers, which were attached by a ribbon over his bare shoulders, and his face was still bandaged with a colorful tie-handkerchief. The Gestapo man ripped it over his head, altogether with the hat it was on. Itsche-Meir's face was revealed in its entirety. Bearded-faces look totally naked once being taken from this world. They look wild, inhuman, as if the shadow of the beard is joining them. Itsche-Meir, who only yesterday aroused such excitement among the Gestapo men in his strong, shiny beard, here today, without his beard, seems like a half-shaven doomed prisoner, a robber sent to a forsaken land, of dust and ashes. The Gestapo man could not see how he could be entertained with Itsche-Meir; inasmuch as it wasn't possible to even grab his beard. He stood, kicked his boot in his Jewish belly and sent him to work.

At work, however, the Gestapo man did not find a shadow of a defect in Itsche-Meir. Itsche-Meir did his job perfectly, even generously, as if he desired to do it. He loaded as many stones on his arms and chest as he could carry, walked in a row with diligent steps, brought the stones into place and placed them there. He did not allow himself any moment of rest, any pause.

That early-autumn day was hot. The sun blazed on Itsche-Meir's shaved head; The sweat ran down his forehead and softened the thin blisters that had begun to dry on his plucked facial skin. Jets of blood began to flow from them, mingling with the jets of sweat dripping from his hair. Now they were dripping together on his chest, his neck and his shoulders, all wet and drenched in sweat. But Itsche-Meir did his thing. He went back and forth, with no breaks. Only occasionally did he soak his damp neck with his bare hand. His hand, however, was not often free; At all times it embraced heavy-weight stones. Well, Itsche-Meir let the jets, mixed with blood and sweat, drain over his half-naked body — and he did his job with such perfection, that it even satisfied his guard, the Gestapo man:

— Good Jude, obedient Jude! After all, there's a decent Jude. What are you?

Jude schwein – habe keine ehre!, yelled Itsche-Meir aloud.

— Good Jude, obedient, decent Jude.

The half-hour given to them for the afternoon rest was used by Itsche-Meir this time as all the others — he held his feet in the palms of his hands.

By the evening, when the group of Jews was seating in their place, Itsche-Meir and the other Jews saw, on the other side of the low fence that surrounded the brick building, the gathering of a crowd of people. When he came closer to the gate could see that a tall pillar towered in the yard above the fence, and three corpses, with long, stretched, naked legs swinging below them, whose boots had been removed. The crowd outside watched the executed that the hangmen let hanging in order to frighten the population. Two Christian women knelt on the stones, and prayed with their eyes closed. Others stood petrified and silent.

Oy, Neta-Moshe was hanged, growled to himself one Jew, Itsche-Meir's friend to the column.

Baruch Dayan HaEmet!, wispered Itsche-Meir.

— He objected. I told him, don't object. “Violation of discipline” they call it, the Jew growled to himself.

— We are all in the hand of God, Itsche-Meir replied with a growl.

This time the sitting Jews were dumbstruck. They were even deprived of the courage to talk about the event when they were already in the basement, and they knelt and fell on the sacks of hay, or sat with their feet in their hands. The black wings of death, which hovered over all, gathered the Jews in their shadow. They feared even to exhale heavily, as they always did. They just sat, their feet in their hands.
Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei raba!, this time Itsche-Meir's voice was louder and more assertive.

— What does he ask for? To bring a Holocaust on our heads?, some protesting voices were heard.

— Hasn't he seen what is being done here!

This time, Itsche-Meir was found to have fewer companions. Instead, more voices were heard:
— Well, fast… fast… be brief and finish…

Ve'ahavta 'et Adonai Elokeicha, bechol levavcha, uvechol nafshecha, uvechol me'odecha, Itsche-Meir stressed the words.

— Well, enough already, enough…, said fearful voices from every corner.

Itsche-Meir swallowed the rest of the words.

So, a whole week passed. Itsche-Meir was excellent in diligence, discipline, obedience, voluntary action, submission. He became the “amusement boy” of the Gestapo. They presented him as an example to the rest of the Jews: “After all, there is a decent Jew,” they even joked that they would make him a “camp leader” for the Jews. He did his job with such perfection that not a single muscle was relieved in protest or reluctance.

That was the case until Friday. When Friday afternoon arrived, the Gestapo noticed a restlessness in Itsche-Meir. Every time he came to the pile to load stones on himself, he paused for a moment and peeked

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to the sky, to see where the sun was. The Gestapo had already awoken him from his dreams several times by whipping him with a whiplash on his head. Itsche-Meir, however, was still restless: his large, frightened eyes did not stop peeking upward.

And then they were finally being led “home” from work. Itsche-Meir hurried, as if trying to get ahead of the whole group, but with difficulty, another column fellow Jew stopped him. Thank God, they had already returned to the crowd place before any star could be seen, which Itsche-Meir was looking for in the sky. The minute they went into the basement inside, Itsche-Meir approached the wall, breathless, and began to say:

Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei raba!

— Faster, fast, fast!
This time Itsche-Meir was in no hurry. When he had finished reading the whole “Shema,• he took out of his pocket a slice of bread, wrapped in paper, which he had concealed with him, swung the slice, and began to sanctify:
Yom hashishi vaychulu hashamayim veha'aretz vechol tseva'am…
Thank God! Everything went smoothly, without interruption.

But the next morning, when Itsche-Meir awakens the world with his “Yitgadal v'yitkadash,” he remained standing by the wall. The long whistle had already been heard, everyone had already hurried to line up and leave — and Itsche-Meir was still standing by the wall and swaying.

— Itsche-Meir, come on!, someone urged him.
Itsche-Meir did not react and did not stop swaying.
— Itsche-Meir!

— Pull him!

Itsche-Meir does not let himself be dragged out of his place. He continued and swayed.
— He is risking his life! Come on!

— Itsche-Meir!, said one last voice.

All marched and got out. Itsche-Meir remained standing near the wall.

Soon a rain of whiplashes fell on him and he heard a screaming voice, as if demons were dancing around him.

— You, bloody Jude!
Itsche-Meir let the lashing rain flow on his head and kept swaying.

A hit on a rib, and destruction. He stood face-to-face, in front of fire-spitting eyes, in front of white, sharp, protruding teeth. A punch wrecked his face.

— Out!

— Merciful Lord! Today I cannot. Today is a day of rest, says Itsche-Meir, trying to show a comely, friendly face, out of his swollen nose, blood flowed.

— What!

— Today is Shabbat for us, today is a day of rest, today I cannot.

The Gestapo man did not strike again. He grabbed him by the neck, took him out of the basement, and brought him to the camp commander's office. Snapping his heels, he extended his arm:
— Heil Hitler!

— Heil Hitler, what happened?

— Violation of discipline!

The commander's tiny eyes got even smaller, his face became more serious. He pondered for a moment. He knew him. Indeed, this was the Jew with the long big beard. He had a report about this Jew: “obedient.” As much as he was educated and experienced in his profession, as much as his heart was empty of emotion, this was the Jew — whether because of his behavior for all that time, or because the play with the beard made him feel good — there was the Jew who evoked in him a last ray of humanity. He sought to save this Jew among these Jews. He got up, walked over to the Jew, who was standing in front of him indifferently, with a wily smile on his bleeding face. He took the whip from the hand of the Gestapo man, passed it on to the head of the Jew, and asked:
— Who are you?

Jude schwein – habe keine ehre!, exclaimed Itsche-Meir, shouting with all his might.

— Now go to work, Jude!, exclaimed the camp commander.

— Merciful Lord, today I cannot, today is a day of rest.

— Take him out!, exclaimed the camp commander.

— Heil Hitler!

— Heil Hitler!

The camp commander picked up the phone. However, he felt something inside. He hung up the phone again and called the Gestapo man, who had already taken out Itsche-Meir.
— Stand up! Show him the gallows!
They took Itsche-Meir to the place of hanging, showed him the pole.
— Do you know what it is, Jude?

— Yes, I saw it… a place where people are hanged, Itsche-Meir replied.

— You'll be hanged, if you do not go to work.

— Merciful Lord, I already told him. Today I cannot. God forbid, I cannot. Today is Shabbat. Day of rest.

They informed the camp commander.

The camp commander phoned to the higher authorities. He was instructed “to hang the Jew Itsche-Meir Rosenkranc, on this very day, at six o'clock in the evening, together with two other members of the Catholic religion.”

When Itsche-Meir was led to the gallows, he did not stop mumbling a Shabbat mincha. The hanging pole did not bother him. One thing bothered him and because of that he looked continuously at the sky, to know whether the Shabbat was already coming out. Seeing that it was still the holy day, he turned to the supervisor who accompanied him to the hanging.

— Merciful Lord, I have a request for you. You were really so good to me.

— What is it, Jude?

— Please wait until the first stars are seen in the sky; – and he pointed his finger upwards. Today is a day of rest.

For a moment the supervisor was astonished to hear the Jew's strange request, and then he smiled:
— So be it, Jude. The others will be hanged first.
The two Catholics who were sentenced to die at the same time as Itsche-Meir, were hanged first. But it was his turn before he finished the Shabbat mincha.
Atah echad v'shimcha echad,” Itsche-Meir added, growling to himself, as the rope was placed around his neck.
By evening, when the group of Jews were returning from work, people were once again in front of the gate. Beyond the brick fence they had already seen, Itsche-Meir's thin body swaying over the hanging pole, along with the other two. His bare feet, from which the sandals had been removed, lengthened and stretched. Most of the Jews kept their eyes on the ground, lest they should see, and choked a sigh in their hearts: Itsche-Meir was also gone.

Most of them were silent. But when they came into their basement, they did not throw themselves on the wooden planks. They did not take their feet in their palms. Soon, one popped up and backed up near the basement wall, started swaying and exclaimed aloud:

Yitgadal v'yitkadash.
No one hurried him again: “Fast, fast.” They emerged and climbed one after the other behind the cantor, and they all started swaying together:
Yitgadal v'yitkadash.
Itsche-Meir had won and they continued in his way.


Footnotes

  1. From the “Book of the Ghetto War Between the Walls, in the Camps, in the Forests”, edited by Yitzhak Zuckerman, Moshe Basok, Published by Kibbutz HaMeuchad, The Yitzhak Katznelson Ghetto Fighters' House, 1954. The author dedicated the above story to his hometown Kutno. Return
  2. name of the Jewish quarter, north of Warsaw. Return
  3. “Rosenkranz” is German for “Rosary”. Return
  4. German, “Yid pig I have no honor!” Return
  5. end of the benediction of the bread. Return


[Page 326]

Kutno in E. Ringelblum's
“News from Warsaw Ghetto”

Translated from the Yiddish by Shulamit Auvé-Szlajfer

In the Kutner ghetto of Konstancja, a Memorial Day was held for Herzl and Jabotinsky, with the agreement of the authorities.

(October 2-10, 1940. p. 52).

The ghetto in Kutno has already been opened… (15.6.40).

(October 23-24, 1940. p. 66).

In Kutno, the ghetto is an open ghetto. Guards were forbidden (?) and they (obviously) let the crowd out.

(December 7-10, 1940. p. 77).

… A woman tells me that last year: “On the 12th of December, I experienced the following incident: I took the train from Łódź to Warsaw, the railway passed through Kutno, and I was seated at the Kalisz station.

 

Jewish children in the ghetto

 

No Jew was allowed to travel further from that. At that time, Jews wore signs on their clothes on front and back, and were allowed to walk in the street from 8am to 5pm. That's why we had to run… We had to go down… We arrived in Kutno around 1am… For Warsaw, we had to wait until 10pm. Everyone entered the waiting room, which was very full because it was holiday time[1]. There were not many Jews. A little time later, young “Greeks”[2] appeared and declared that (because of) the Jews who were in the room, the atmosphere was humid, they should go out so that the air would be breathable. The Jews had to go out on the side that leads to the city. The crowd sat on the luggage and later, the same 'Greeks' came out and began beating the men terribly. The battle went so far that the Jews left their luggage and fled. Then, they started beating the women terribly. They were struck in the face. Not a single woman is completely out, all of them have shed blood. Among the 'Greeks' were two who were quite agitated and began to ask why they were beating. The answer came: because Jews were to blame for the critical situation in which Polish Germans found themselves. The two replied that it was not the fault of the Jews, but of the policy of the government. The assailants went out, and with them the two defenders. The two came out constantly, especially one of them became interested in us. They brought water for us to wash away the blood and expressed their sympathy. He explained that he was going to intervene to allow us into the waiting room. They left, but did not return. This means that they had not succeeded. Around 3am, a car arrived with officers, the same 'Greeks' who had beaten us came out and ordered us to take out the officers' belongings. I got to drag a crate. After a few steps, the officer realized that I, wounded earlier, was dragging such a heavy crate, and mentioned that it was too heavy for me and took himself. One of the two “Greeks” who defended us told us: Wait, the thugs will readily go away and you will be able to enter (he meant the “Greeks” who had beaten us). After a while, they explained us that they would see to it that we did not have to wait for the train until 10pm. Fortunately, a special additional train appeared. At 6, as we were told at the station, the train was allowed on a special intervention by soldiers and passed safely…”[3]

(24.12. She 86--87)

I was told that in the Kutner ghetto, the captain had all Jews stripped naked and collected one and a half million marks from all of them, including a quarter of a million from one Jew.

(Beginning of June 1941. p. 278 — from the second book “Writings of the Ghetto”, Warsaw, 1961).

 

Translator's footnotes
  1. Christmas time because Chanukah was already over, on December 19, 1939 Return
  2. Meaning, Poles of German origins. Return
  3. All the missing lines were burnt, in the original. Return

[Page 327]

Kutno and Surroundings
During the Years of Occupation

In books and newspapers

Translated from the Yiddish by Shulamit Auvé-Szlajfer

November 24, 1939

Border posts are already installed all along the border between the area included in the Reich and the General Government (about the places where one could face a border post, not yet public, according to the statements of the “Warsaw Journal,” we find: Kutno, Stryków, Koluszki, Klucze near Olkusz). Silver or gold, new (unused) goods of any kind, or food should not be taken out of the Reich.

February 22, 1940

At the moment, colonization is not going too well. An example is given in the report published today in the Łódź newspaper about the Łęczyca district. The Germans of the Baltic regions appear here as a lonely drop in the Polish ocean. Łęczyca is widely known as a town well supplied with food. People even ask the General Government for authorizations to settle in the city. But only Poles want to come and Łęczyca needed German townspeople. Increasing the city's population is the most important task. In the whole locality there were neither German craftsmen nor German merchants. So far only two Baltic Germans have come: the district veterinarian and an engineer-architect… It is interesting to note in the report that there are hardly any local Germans who have “returned to the Reich”: in the city of Łęczyca they are 180, compared to 3000 Jews and 11000 inhabitants in general.

February 23, 1940

For the moment, the Baltic Germans are the main group that has settled in the Polish territories included in the Reich.

The newspaper constantly insists on the small number of Germans in the region: for example, speaking on the occasion of the appointment of a German mayor in Kutno, it recalls that the city has 28,000 inhabitants and less than 400 Germans.

In Łęczyca, “a fire” broke out in the school, due to the filthy state it was in, of course. According to the newspaper, the firefighters only made sure that the fire did not spread to the neighboring houses.

March 4, 1940

Germanization activity does not mark a pause and, on the contrary, the results are still far from making an impression. According to a report on Kutno in the “Łódź Zeitung,” “the number of Germans is increasing”; but at the moment, according to the same report, the population is 20,000 Poles, 7,700 Jews and 400 Germans.

March 29, 1940

A list of names has been published in the district of Vartegau, drawn up by the commissioner. There are 41 districts there, 27 of which are from the former province of Poznań (in its entirety except Bydgoszcz and the districts of Bydgoszcz and Wyrzysk), 10 from the province of Łódź (partly still in Polish times included in the Province of Poznań) and 4 of that of Warsaw: Gostynin, Kutno, Włocławek and Nieszawa. Not only the names of the districts of Poznań which dated from before the First World War were Germanized, but also those of others, such as Leslau (Włocławek), Nessau (Nieszawa), Warthbrücken (Koło), Lentschütz (Łęczyca).

May 19, 1940

… Jewish ghettos continue to be organized — orders to this effect have already been issued in Łęczyca.

June 13, 1940

From the recently established Łęczyca ghetto, desperate reports come about the sudden and determined shrinkage of this area and, in connection with it, the brutal expulsion of part of the Jewish population. This is of course linked to the settlement of families evacuated from Germany.

July 17, 1940

According to rumors, all the Jews of Kutno were expelled from the city and installed somewhere outside the city, in the open air; the Warsaw “Joint” asked for permission to come and help them, but their request was rejected…

July 21, 1940

I have heard rumors about what is going on in Kutno… all the businesses in Kutno are already German. The Jews were moved a few kilometers outside the city: they were installed in a sort of factory building and, as there was little space, a large part of it lays under the open sky.

August 22, 1940

About the territories included in the perimeter of the Reich, the newspaper reports a march of the German youth “with the martyrs of the German country road, between Inowroclaw and Kutno” (“Freedom march”) — again to support hatred of 'Polacks'.

September 2, 1940

About the regions included in the Reich, the newspapers reproduce in full the speeches of Goebbels in Katowice and of Greiser[1] in Kutno, the meeting point of the “Freedom March&3148; which must be perceived as an educational role by seeding and inciting hate.

September 22, 1940

In the news from the regions included in the Reich, the Jewish question can be found once in the “Łódź newspaper report.

The author of the report visits the already famous ghetto in a disused sugar factory (cukrownia) outside the city, accompanied by a police officer, who shows him how Jews behave. They, the Germans, would have already tidied up here, but the Jews are making a bigger and bigger trash can!

(Ludwig Landau, Chronicle of the War and Occupation Years, September 1939, November 1940).

The months of March and April 1942 were rich in a whole series of “transfer actions”… During that period, &l147;actions” were carried out in… Kutno. “The action”

[Page 328]

lasted from late March to late April. About 8,400 Jews were “transferred” to Chelmno…

(A. Szedlecki, on the fourth anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto in Kutno, “The New Life” 1946, No. 14).

In August 1942, a series of “transfers” and “actions” (and others) were carried out in Żychlin…

The “transferred” were taken to Chelmno, the children were killed on the spot. About 200 people were left to sort valuables. The group was shot down in March 1943…

(Documents and Materials, Volume II, “Actions” and “Relocations”, edited by Dr. Y. Kermisz, pp. 15 and 30. Warsaw — Łódź — Krakow, 1946).

Speaking of camps, we must also pay particular attention to their diversity with regard to the size of their surface. Besides a camp, which covered several hundred hectares of land (Auschwitz), with several hundred barracks, we have camps, which were limited to a few buildings, up to the area of a factory (e.g., the “Konstancja Jewish Camp”) — the buildings of an old sugar factory near Kutno, where about 8000 people were parked, some of whom, due to lack of space, “lived” in the open.

(Documents and materials, Volume I — “Camps”, edited by Mgr. N. Blumenthal, p. 7, Łódź 1946).


 

Translator's footnote
  1. Arthur Karl Greiser (22 January 1897 - 21 July 1946), hanged in Poland for crime against humanity. Return


[Page 328]

Poles Tell About the Kutno Ghetto[1]

Translated from the Yiddish by Shulamit Auvé-Szlajfer

Tadeusz Białecki, laborer, born in Malina, Kutner district, born 21/2/1919. Education: 4th grade in Public School (016/180). During the occupation, he lived in Kutno. The following narrative is based on personal experiences and observations.

I was able to enter the Konstancja Jewish camp thanks to the fact that I provided food for the Stuczyński and Kapłan families. Until the ghetto was closed, I went inside, and later I only went to the gate, when it was already dark, where they waited for me and took the items I had brought. When the gate could not be accessed anymore at the end of the summer of 1941, on the advice of Mrs. Stuczyńska (who was hiding in Gąbin at the time and did not dare show up in Kutno, as the Gestapo was looking for her for illegally supplying meat to the ghetto), I used the last opportunity to deal and provide food, thanks to Helman, who on a meadow near the ghetto led to pasture the seven cows that belonged to Zisman Kapłan. This was the only Jew who could deal with a Pole.

I used to creep into a canal, which usually flowed from Konstancja into the river Ochnia but was completely dry this summer. I arrived totally bent to the meadow where he was sitting and, without getting out, discussed with him and then put the package away so that he could put everything in his pockets from there.

I managed to do that for a while, but one gendarme certainly noticed us and wanted to shoot Helman. This time, he let him live, but the cows could no longer graze there. This too became forbidden.

* * *

Dr. Bolesław Jędraszko, born in the village of Body, District of Pułtusk. During the occupation, he was in Kutno.

Dr. Jędraszko, a district doctor, had a free entrance to the Konstancja Jewish camp until the ghetto was liquidated. The whole time he could come to the ghetto to cure the sick on flea-typhus. Only in the last three weeks after the liquidation of the Żychlin ghetto, the German authorities allowed him to see the Jewish doctors Julius Wajnzapt, who had lived in Krośniewice (Kutner area) before the war, and Dr. Brzuzka, whom the ghetto administration had brought to Kutno, with the permission of the authorities in Warsaw. The meetings took place in the ghetto's watch post, under the control of the SS men. This was probably done so that in Konstancja no one would be informed about the tragic fate of Żychlin.

One of the first typhus patients was Dr. Wajnzapt – and this is where Dr. Jędraszko's activity began.

Despite the determination of the bacterial institute in Poznań that it was a typhoid, Dr. Jędraszko proved with the help of the bacteriological institute in Łódź that it was surprisingly a flea-typhus. For this reason, the German authorities entrusted Dr. Jędraszko as a connoisseur of infectious diseases and gave him oversight of the ghetto hospital and the development of the epidemics. The supervision (or collaboration) lasted literally until the last moment.

The promiscuity of ghetto inhabitants, where almost all of them slept next to each other, which made it possible for the louse to move from person to person, in the absence of a bath, disinfection, preservatives, even water and soap, helped the epidemic develop to a large extent and there could be no discussion about eliminating it in those conditions. The small makeshift hospital, run by Dr. Wajnsztajn, was unable to accommodate all the sick and some of them had to remain amidst the healthy, creating new dangers of mass infection. The merits of

[Page 329]

Dr. Wajnzapt, in part also of Dr. Brzuzka and paramedic Aspersztajn, who have provided the hospital with a significant number of medicines and tools, must be emphasized, of course by means of money carefully collected from the Jews locked in the ghetto.

The Germans did not give any help. Quite the opposite, both doctors were always faced with obstructions, as well as Dr. Jędraszko. His request to get anti-tiphus injections, however, met with a categorical refusal. He was told that there was no serum for Jews and Poles.

The epidemic broke out in the fall of 1940 and lasted until the ghetto was liquidated. One thousand cases of the disease were reported, of which 500 died. A large percentage of mortality must be charged on account of weakened organism (exhaustion).

The food at the hospital was adequate, thanks to the efforts of the Jewish ghetto administration (Elders' Council), but on the other hand the general diet was – starving. At the end, people were getting 100 grams of bread a day.

Artur Frankensztajn, the foreman of the hospital, fulfilled his task very energetically.

A few weeks before the eviction[2], one case of suicide was noted by Dr. Nehemiah Landau.

* * *

Kiszelewski Mieczysław, born in Kutno in 1910, has High School education, a clerk (016/185). He lived in Kutno throughout the occupation. Recounts on the basis of his own observation and experiences.

The S.S. Josef Schneider, a German official in the city administration, beat and tortured at every opportunity. Schneider's assistant was Wilhelm Sauer.

The Judenrat included Sender Falc, Opoczynski (a painter). The Jewish police were not in uniform. They wore a Star of David on front and back and were only armed with sticks. The members of the Council of Elders wore white-blue armbands.

During the year 1940, the Jews used to come to town unofficially to buy food. Unlike the members of the Judenrat, who must have had a special permit. Zimkowski, Stuczyński Leon and a Pole from the village of Walentynów provided meat and food for the ghetto. Mordechai Stuczyński took the goods inside the ghetto. The first three were murdered in Włocławek in 1942.

At night, someone came from the ghetto with a cart and collect his goods (valuables, which he had hidden in the city).

The Germans provided bread, potatoes and horse meat of the worst kind. Food was entering the ghetto by day, after bribing of the guards – German gendarmes, folksdeutsches.

They confiscated furs, gold, and jewelry. In 1941, some young people were said to be taken to work on the railway. This information was confirmed.

In August 1942, the Jewish population of Żychlin and the surrounding area was taken by carts to the Kutno train station and loaded into wagons. Mostly at night, by car, or at dawn. From that time, every few days, the transports were off to Chelmno near Kłodawa. The children were murdered on the spot, in Żychlin. Only about 200 people were left to sort the items, which were later divided among the Germans, or sold. Despite the said typhus, they were not afraid to take things.

Up to March 1943, those killed were mostly youths. They were shot in the ghetto itself, or taken to the Jewish cemetery, where the Jewish gravediggers had dug graves into which they were later thrown after being shot. The last three, who were allegedly to be sent to another camp, were shot shortly afterwards in front of the gate when, at the command of the Germans, they were let on the way with their packs. Among them was Zakszewski, 23, an acquaintance of mine. Metal Leibish with his family, a binder, my neighbors, for whom I forwarded correspondence with their cousin Temerson in England, were also deported in 1940.

In the ghetto, the Germans ordered shoes and dresses from Jewish artisans, paid for with money or products. They (the Jews) found themselves in dire conditions, but still believed that they would survive thanks to the quick end of the war.

In the town itself, the mood was depressing. The population already knew about it from other places and in the ghetto, no one had any illusions. The Jews often tore money. Attempts were made to escape from the wagons, the cars and from the camps, but without success.

The fugitives were killed on the spot in the most heinous way. The children's heads were usually smashed against a wall, holding them by the legs. Among the killers were Germans, folksdeutsches, gendarmes, Security Police, Customs Officers, German Labor Front and the S.S.

* * *

Śpiewankiewicz Kazimierz, a locksmith, born in Kutno 19/2/1890. Education 3rd grade Public School (016/183 – 016/184). During the occupation, lived in Kutno. The following narrative is based on his own observations.

The transport of the Jews from Żychlin was the responsibility of one chief of the guards of the Kutno ghetto, Warnike. He was helped in that task by an S.A. In one of Warnike's transports, there was a seriously wounded person. There, besides women, there was a man who looked like being mad.

A few weeks later, the Jews from Kutno began to be deported. The last Jews seen there: the Manczesters, the Zylbers, the Kibels, Opoczyński. Elders Council's president Bernard Holcman, Manczester and others were shot dead on the spot.

In general, the Jews did not believe that they were going to perish. They believed that Hitler would use the Jews as labor for the time being, because as long as the watch was held by the SchuPo, the Jews worked for them. Of course, that was with their materials and unpaid.

One of the last Jewish policemen was

[Page 330]

Gurker[3], apparitor at the Kutno Town Hall. After the Jews from Kutno were deported, Jews from Łódź were brought in, to sort out the leftovers and furniture. After the killing of the former, they started searching for treasures. This work, including breaking floorboards, smashing furnaces, and digging to find gold – was carried out under the supervision of Kowal's folksdeutsche Imrot. The valuable items were taken to the storage of N.S.D.A.P., to be distributed to Germans. The non-valuable items were burned.

The Jews of Łódź were not provided with food at all, so they starved to death. Those who carried the dead did not return. They were buried in the Jewish cemetery.

The Jews had to pay for the disinfection of the grounds with their money. Among the Poles who helped in the robbery: Igielski of Kutno and Waszikowski, a former representative of the company “Leszczków” in Kutno. They also plundered the Poles, with the help of the Germans.

* * *

Wojtysiak Stanisław, born in Kutno. Middle education, driver-mechanic. During the occupation, he was living in Kutno. Recounts based on his experiences.

From spring 1940, I was employed as a driver in the police (SchuPo), assigned to First Lieutenant Weissborn. When the ghetto was established in June of that year, Weissborn was appointed chief of the ghetto guards and remained in office until 1941. First Lieutenant Weissborn was in charge of controlling the ghetto and guarding it. He needed to check that no illegal trade was being carried out, but since he alone got łapówka[4], he used to close his eyes and even facilitated it. Mayor Scherman, who wanted to live long enough to see the starvation death of Konstancja as soon as possible, seeing that the ghetto had existed longer than he had anticipated, was shocked by the reason for this – and began coming to the ghetto. He shot the Jews he met in town in front of the ghetto gate, and he was constantly at war with Weissborn. Finally, in 1940, with the help of the party, he removed the watch command from Weissborn and brought guards from Poznań, who quickly became famous for their atrocities. There could be no more talk of illegal trade and there were more and more victims. I never drove to the ghetto again and a while later, Weissborn was transferred.

After a few months, I was with the new chef going away from Konstancja, after the closing of ghetto. I arrived just as they were deporting the last 50 Jews from Łódź. It is hard to imagine the cruelty with which the pale, hungry and tired Jews were loaded onto a kind of truck, which could hold a maximum of 20 people. The Hitlerite forces pushed in 50 of them. They were tortured and beaten to death and there were two victims on the spot. They could not bear the blow on their heads. After they had been charged, actually crushed, the soldiers were walking around the trucks and where an elbow or a head protruded from the tarpaulin, they were beaten with sticks. When they had finished their degrading work, the sweat of their faces was wiped away triumphantly. They were tired of… beating. The truck with the last, painfully crying inhabitants of Konstancja, drove in the direction of Koło[5].

* * *

Stefan Janczewski, born in Kutno 25/8/1903. Education: 7th grade in Powszechna[6] School, farmer. During the occupation, he lived in Kutno. Recounts on his own observation. Address: Podczachy, Powiat Kutno.

Janczewski worked as a foreman in the dairy and delivered milk to the ghetto every day. At the gate, under the supervision of the German guard, the milk was picked up by the representative of the milk cooperative, Meir Kapłan. Bringing milk there, Janczewski enabled an illegal trade, through the mediation of Kapłan and Abraham Helman. But it did not last long. Before the liquidation of the ghetto, which was then called “camp to kick the bucket”, due to the large number of deaths, the watch of the “Boleks[7], or the SS-men, changed, and the supply was strictly controlled. They rummaged into the milk jug, listened to the conversations. The smuggling stopped.

At the beginning of March 1942, trucks began to take off in the direction of Krośniewice[8]. This lasted until April 1942. Eventually, 40 men were left to make arrangements. Among them were Helman, Opoczinski, Praszker, Mendel Warszawczyk, Kirsztajn, Frankenstajn, Celemenski, and others whose names I do not remember.

They were tortured terribly. Inside the ghetto, by the gate, they were beaten with sticks and the food was very scarce – a few turnips. There was not even mention of other products, e.g., bread and skimmed milk. Regarding their horrific fate, they made it known with notes that were sent with a slingshot, when they saw an acquaintance. Nobody had access to the ghetto anymore. At one point, they were killed. The Jews who were seen later were already strangers, probably from the Łódź ghetto.


 

Translator's footnotes
  1. From the submitted materials of Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, thanks to the kindness of Prof. B. Mark. {Original note] Return
  2. difficult to know if it is the eviction to the ghetto or the liquidation of the ghetto to Chelmno. Return
  3. Noah Gurker. See article on page 292 of this book Return
  4. Polish, “bribe”. Return
  5. i.e., where they were transported to Chelmno and gassed in the gas-vans. Return
  6. mixed Polish-Jewish school. Return
  7. nickname of the watchguards. Return
  8. and so, in the direction of Koło. See note number 5. Return

 

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