When the bombardments were over and those who had fled gradually started to return to town, we convened a meeting of the ken (nest; inner group) to decide how to structure our activities in light of the dreadful reality. Most members felt that we should start out for the Russian border while there was still a possibility. Some members indeed set out to achieve this goal. Among them were Mordechai Ar-On, his brother Shmuel, Jacob Hershlikowicz, Itka Kaminska and others. Those who stayed behind realized that the organization had to continue to function as an efficient body. Thus, the older members continued to meet for discussion and an exchange of views. Our hope was to make contact with the central organization in Warsaw and, eventually, we did succeed. Our central meeting was an apartment on 21 Pilsudski Street. Meanwhile, the German occupation continued to make inroads into Jewish life. The ghetto was established and Nazi oppression increased.
The Visit of Anielewicz
In the period between the outbreak of the war and February, 1940, we managed to create a world of our own in spite of the increasingly difficult conditions. We lost ourselves in talk and debate. We even read poetry. We continued to hope and to search for direction. The visit of Mordechai Anielewicz to Piotrkow did a great deal to strengthen our spirit and to imbue us with courage.
Mordechai's visit took place by chance. One of our members, Shoshanna Guterman, had been to Lodz to visit her family. There she met Mordechai in the ghetto. We had asked Shoshanna to make contact with Shomer members in Lodz. We were very interested in knowing how they were coping in these difficult times and what advice and encouragement they might possibly give us. It was through the members in Lodz that Shoshanna found out that someone from the central organization, namely, Mordechai Anielewicz, was visiting. Shoshanna attended the meeting which Anielewicz conducted. She was greatly inspired by him and told him about our activities in Piotrkow. This is how he came to know of our existence and decided to visit us and lend his moral support.
By this time, travel from Lodz had grown increasingly problematic. Shoshanna and Anielewicz had to travel on false papers. They traveled to the railroad station through the cemetery. From Lodz they made it to Belchatow, where a new border divided the Reich from the General Government. They arrived in Belchatow during the curfew, when Jews were not allowed out on the streets. The one Jewish home they found refused to let them in; However, Shoshanna obtained the address of Wenglishevski's parents. Wenglishevski was one of our members, and his parents lived in Belchatow. Crawling along the street, Shoshanna and Anielewicz eventually reached the home of the Wenglishevski's, who of course, received the travelers with open arms. Their generosity was rewarded when Mordechai was able to give them news of their two sons, who had just escaped to Lithuania. The following morning the travelers set out on foot for Piotrkow.
At about three o'clock on Saturday afternoon, there was a Shomer meeting at our apartment. I played the mandoline while the others softly hummed. The windows were shut and the room was dark. Suddenly the door opened. There stood Shoshanna and Mordechai. Shoshanna introduced us to this member of the central leadership committee. We listened with great interest to Mordechai's lecture. He first discussed the political situations of Nazi Germany, Russia and the Allies. He then went on to the position of Judaism within the new constellation. He finished his talk by focusing on what had happened within Hashomer from the start of the war until the present time. He told us that our movement was active in the Ukraina and concentrated in Lithuania, where a great many preparatory Shomer kubbutzim functioned. At its convention in Lithuania, the members had decided to sent three delegates to the occupied zone in Poland. Their function would be to help set up a resistance movement. Mordechai was one of these delegates. In his talk, he clarified that our goal was nothing less than war with the Nazis.
|German crossroads signs in the ghetto|
He knew that we had no chance of winning such a war, but as Zionists it was our duty to protect the name and honor of the Jewish people to show future generations that their blood had not been spilled in vain. Mordechai also outlined the few limited possibilities for Aliya to Eretz Israel. The only way was through Japan and Rumania. Very few managed this dangerous route. Mordechai Anielewicz stayed with us for two days and then continued to Warsaw.
It was now quite clear to us that our goal was war. We decided to organize the youngest members and proceeded to follow through on this idea. From that point on, our activities were aimed in three separate directions. The older members continued meeting as they had done previously, while the younger members were guided by counsellors. We instituted a secret code for communicating with Warsaw. Thus, we were able to maintain regular contact until the end of the war. As a matter of fact, someone found a postcard signed by Jacob Aronowitcz, Hanka Zigelman and Meir Zarnowiecki after the liberation. Immediately after Mordechai Anielewicz's departure for Warsaw, a Shomer convention was held there. Because he looked so Aryan, we sent Jacob Aronowicz to be the representative of the Piotrkow nest.
The convention again emphasized the urgent need to train Jewish youth in active self-defense against the Nazis. When Jacob returned, he brought the Movement paper which was produced in Warsaw and distributed all through Poland.
The situation grew worse. Signs of the oncoming Holocaust were apparent everywhere. Eye witnesses brought reports of unbelievable brutality and even genocide. Self-defense became a burning issue.
At the outset of 1942 we received a letter from the central leadership which requested that we send a delegate to Zarki, where the movement had set up an agricultural community. This time Shoshanna Guterman, who had Aryan papers, went. She met with Mordechai Anielewicz and Arye Wilner, who demanded that we organize in underground cells which would gather weapons or infiltrate German work places, as well as establish contact with other underground groups. Some of us managed to acquire Aryan papers. We made contact with the Communist Party, which ordered us to take part in a weapons-gathering operation. Unfortunately we were unable to reach our goal in this area. We couldn't transfer weapons to the woods and our dreams of self-defense crashed against the hard rocks of reality.
Editor's Note: Mordechai Anielewicz later became the commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Shoshanna Guterman is presently the wife of the author, Meir Zar (Zarnowiecki). She and her husband reside in South Bend Indiana. Both brothers Wenglishewski, Itzchok and Szymek, were in Vilna and Poniewiez. Itzchak now lives in Toronto; Szymek was killed by the Nazis. Itka Kaminska is a member of kibbutz Beit Zera. Jacob Aronowicz, Mordechai, and Shmuel Bar-On, Hanka Zigelman and Jakob Hershlikowitz all perished in the Holocaust.
He was called the Kalisher Baker because he had actually been born in Kalish. He had left his birthplace and came to our city following the monstrous devastation left by the Amaleks during WWI. He lived with his family in the heart of the Yidn-Gas. In the dwelling into which he moved there was a baking oven. It was not just any ordinary oven; it had a large furnace and a Piekelik (an upper warming area). The housewives bragged about the cholents they got from him and their husbands licked their fingers after eating the Sabbath Kugels. In short, he was our baker and liked by all of us as were the other bakers.
And yet, he was quite different. He had a special status as far as his fellow tradesmen were concerned. The bakers of our town were simple people who wore boots that were covered with flour and had worried expressions on their faces. But he, Itzhak Leib, was a Jew, a Chassid, a person of stately appearance, with a long beard and payot. A slice of his bread had a truly Chassidic flavor, albeit no form. His place was a veritable malon orkhim for stranded people. In the winter he even obliged them with a glass of warm tea.
|Staro-Warszawska Street The Yidngass on early
Shabbat afternoon. Ruchele carries her cholent pot
from the Kalisher Baker down the street.
Reb Itzhak Leib Rusak was quite different. A person does not live just to bake bread, he would say habitually. For him, baking was really only a necessity in order to be able to support his family. Like the smoke from his oven, he more than once ascended to heaven in deep meditation, his eyes closed and his head held high. He did not doze off like his colleagues while the dough rose after he had kneaded it in the doughbox. He would put on his glasses barely over the tip of his nose and immerse himself in a volume of mussar, or sink into a Chassidic book. Whenever he read a lovely tractate he was unable to contain himself, burst out into hearty laughter. Overjoyed he would bang the table and would vigorously, wake his apprentices and regale the half-asleep with his beautiful thoughts. More than once he was so deeply engrossed in recounting a Chassidic tale that the bread in the oven would bum while he continued to tell the story to its very end.
Every Friday one would know that it was Erev Shabbos Kodesh by observing Itzhak Leib. His preparations for Sabbath Hamalka started early. Everything and every corner of his home would be polished. The large tea urn would be filled with fresh water. Only things pertaining to Shabbos would be placed in the oven, such as challahs, eyer kichlach, roast goose, and other delicacies. Returning from bathing with a beaming red face and his beard combed wide, he would close the boxes of dough and cover the kneading table with a white cloth. It was easy to see that the chores of the week were done and that the holy Shabbos was upon him and would soon arrive together with the cholents: large, wide, wealthy pots, also Chassidic devices. Sometimes a few small pots would sneak in among them, as well as those of the Chassidic poor. The pots would be placed in the oven according to the status of their owners: the pots of the wealthy in the middle (so that they would not burn) right in front of the pots of the poor, whose contents at times remained half raw.
An hour before the lighting of the candles, the door of the oven would be shut with the cholents inside, to be opened on Shabbos afternoon with a broad, resounding Gut Shabbos. That was how Itzhak Leib Kalisher conducted himself. On Shabbos, after prayer, he would come into the bakery, greet the crowd with a smiling face and a good Shabbos, then return home to his family. He himself would not go near the oven. The gatekeeper's son, Antoni, would remove the cholent and put the pots into the oven on Fridays because the Jewish bakers had to go to the ritual baths.
Itzhak Leib would spend a sanctified Shabbos and immerse himself in a holy world under the shtraiml and in his black silk frock. Pious men would come by for a glass of tea. While sipping the warm beverage, all would be regaled with interesting Chassidic tales. Reb Itzhak Leib was a master at storytelling and was able to enthrall the group. Many of his stories were the creations of his mind, but all were full of brotherly love, strength and joy. After several glasses of warm tea, the hearts and souls of the men would also become warm; the fresh bread would have been removed from the ovens on Motsei Shabath but the Kalisher baker would still be celebrating Shalosh Seudot and singing Sabbath songs until the stars were high in the sky. Only then would he open his boxes with the sour dough to the tune of a holy song from the Hamavdil.
When Purim came, Itzhak Leib would be full of joy. Year after year he participated in the Medurat Joseph, which was presented at the home of the rabbi. He played the role of Jacob like a real artist. Before then he would prepare himself for the Purim festivities.
His grey beard notwithstanding, he would study his role for the Purim play with all the other young lads. He also disguised himself for another role, that of Meshulach. He danced and sang a variety of songs in a mixture of Polish and Yiddish and would not cease until the crowd was caught up in the spirit of the festivities, singing along with him in ecstasy while dancing incessantly all through the night.
For Passover, the entire bakery would put on a new face in order to bake the matzohs. Everything was washed and scrubbed. The walls were repainted. The oven was kashered. The floor was scrubbed with soap and hot water. The tables were covered with shiny tin. A new barrel was placed in the corner and covered with a white cloth; every day at sundown, water was poured into it and poor women and girls wearing freshly washed aprons kneaded the dough swiftly and rolled it with new rolling pins. The entire Chassidic community obtained their Shmira matzohs from the Kalisher baker's premises. With what kind of rituals were the Erev Passover matzohs baked? The most pious Chassidim, Lamdanim, together with the head of the Beit Din, cut the pieces of dough. A beedle (Shammos) carried them over to the table. The Chassidim kneaded, formed and rolled them. The Shames sheni would take the matzohs over to the oven while singing a Passover tune. Itzhak Leib would be standing at the oven and, with a new shovel, push each matzoh into it, all the while singing songs from theHallel. The crowd would chime in and soon it seemed as if the matzohs were dancing into the oven. The Kalisher baker was overjoyed, raised his voice even higher and heartily roused the crowd to song and celebration.
Reb Itzhak Leib probably would still be strolling around God's holy earth had it not been for the Holocaust. Our community, too, was destroyed and our hero was among them. Nevertheless, he died, not in fear, but with a smile on his face.
When bad news spread through the Jewish community, even the great scholars, politicians, and optimists would shake their bent heads. The Kalisher baker did not succumb to bitter fear but would shake his head and say: The darker the times, the nearer is the coming of the Messiah. With a strong Emunah, he awaited the coming of the Messiah. Those were the last days in the life of the community. The streets were empty, the houses shuttered closely; it looked like a cemetery. The silence was broken with cries and moans. Occasionally, a door would open somewhere; a figure would ashamedly and stealthily exit with a knapsack on his back and wander away. That Sabbath, the oven of the Kalisher baker remained cold and empty. No cholents were pushed out by Antoni, who had already been ensconced in a comfortable Jewish flat. The children of Yitzhak Leib had already departed for their legally assigned working places, while he himself remained behind at home with his sickly wife. Dressed in his silk coat with a beaming smile on his face as ever, he stood at the open bookcases, quietly humming a sad nigun. He pulled out one book after another, nervously turning the pages as if to strengthen his confidence and belief. He had the feeling that all the forthcoming trials, tribulations and atrocities that were mentioned in the Holy Books as supposedly occurring just before the coming of the Messiah were about to happen or already were upon them.
So the baker would noisily shut his books with his fists and rejoice singing in a highly pitched voice Menucha V'Simcha! His wife was amazed. She had not experienced him in such a state of holiness for many years. His melodies intermingled with the cries and moans of those outside.
Surely the last day had come. It was a beautiful autumn day. The sun, in a clear blue sky, shone as always over the roofs of the houses of the Jews. From time to time, a mild breeze scattered the yellowed leaves of the chestnut trees and swirled them from one side of the street to the other. The nearby church, as usual, marked the hours for the town with the chimes of it bells. In the ghetto, these chimes were nervously counted. Even though it was a regular weekday, Yitzhak Leib donned his Shabbos clothes and the white kittel with the silver threads. He prayed a Yom Kippur prayer service, sang Hallel with intense love and chanted, It may be that today is the last time that I can praise God well. He turned to his wife, however, she could not hear what Yitzhak was saying; the shouts and screams outside drowned out his Hallel. His wife continued to putter around the rooms; she pulled together clothing, dishes, and valuables. She laid them out in two equal piles, one for him and one for her, to be taken with them for the resettlement. Her jewelry and the bit of money they had buried were also divided into two equal parts. The two mounds of possessions grew taller and taller. Once more the shouts, as if from Hell, grew louder and louder: Everyone out, whoever remains will be shot. She hurried and brought more warm undershirts and flannel underwear to take along; also spoons and knives. The baker from Kalish, watching her, cried, In the world to come, we don't eat with spoons! His wife stood there with a garment in her hand and looked perplexedly at her husband. He spoke again: All knives, forks, and jewelry give them to me. He spread out all of the jewelry which his wife had put together and announced, These are our weapons I proudly carried the image of God all through my life. Shall I lower myself today? Should I bow down before the killers, beg for mercy, allow myself to be driven out? No! he shrieked with all his might, I will fight for my life, which God has given me, and if I must die I will die like a grandchild of the Hashmonoim and not like a mouse. Father of mercy, although I am old and weak, give me the strength to hear your name once more. He turned to his wife and said, Give me the shrouds. The clothing fell from her hand. She pulled the clothes of death from out of the piles. She was a modest woman, his wife, and always did as her husband asked. They wrapped themselves in shrouds. See, this is our armor, he said, pointing to the shrouds. Now we are ready.
With a wild shout, the door was broken down. Two Nazi killers entered, two beasts! Upon seeing the distinguished old man dressed in the white shroud, with knives in his hand, they momentarily were taken aback and stood still.
Get out, old man, they shouted. Yitzhak Leib remained calm and did not answer. When one said, Shoot, the baker from Kalish threw what he held in his hand into their faces. Shocked by the old people's nerve, both killers moved to one side in an instant.
Yitzhak Leib calmly said the last prayer of confession. His wife repeated it after him word for word.
Their voices, with all their might, then exploded with Shma Yisrael. Two gunshots silenced the hearts of the two holy ones.
Outside, in the street, someone chanted, Blessed be God Who is the righteous judge. . .
Roman Mogilanski (New York)
|The young Roman Mogilanski
after the liberation.
Buchenwald No. 87872
The Judenrein action in Piotrkow had already lasted two days. Nobody ate, nobody exchanged greetings, and nobody thought of looking at a watch all notion of time had disappeared. People slept dressed anywhere on floors, in attics, or in the empty rooms of those who had already been taken to the Umschlagplatz and to the freight cars. We only heard the continuous jiggling of broken glass panes. At this terrible sound, the arms stiffened and eyes became wide with fright.
A distant cry and screams. Along the stone brick pavement of the narrow street, which lead to the huge Fama church, there ran a little man with a bundle on his back, while another man in SS uniform stretched his arm and, from the tip of his fingers, there broke forth quickly a sharp snapping sound. The running man dropped down.
A strange, sharp cry of They are shooting! passed along the street. Demons made their appearance. They were looking for the hidden Jews. Doors to the poor, shabby apartments, stores and cellars were broken in. Old men's arms were fractured; women's bosoms were kicked by heavy, dirty heels. Many were perishing from torture and bullets; others were taken away by the Polish police and the Jewish collaborators in their round, ridiculous hats.
A few people were hiding in the dark bunker under the corner house, across Grabowski's drug store. There they stood, expecting a miracle. Now and then, a rustling; an even, sleepless breathing could be heard. The brain cannot familiarize itself with these sounds in the darkness and silence. Perhaps they were asleep; none could tell.
At night it must have been late another two stole in quietly.
Is it you? asked one of them, without seeing anybody, and the sudden sound of his voice seemed to light up the darkness for a moment.
Yes, answered the schoolboy. It's all right!
Sha-aa! They might hear you, said the owner of the cellar, catching each of them by the arm and pulling them down.
The newcomers placed themselves by the wall, while one of them was rubbing his forehead with his hand.
What is the matter? asked the weeping mother in a whisper. It is blood.
Then they all grew silent again. The injured man applied a handkerchief to his wound and became quiet. There followed again a thick silence, untroubled by time. Again a sleepless breathing!
On top, underneath the ceiling, a very faint whiteness appeared. The schoolboy was asleep, but the others raised their heads and looked up. At last it became clear that the cellar had a tiny window through which the break of day peeped in.
Then hasty, frightened steps were heard, and there appeared a tall, coatless man, followed by a young woman with a baby in her arms. The morning was advancing, and one could read the expression of wild fear that stamped itself upon their faces.
This way! This way! whispered the man.
They were running after us, they are looking for us, said the woman. Her shoes were put on her bare feet, and her young body displayed strange, white, malignant spots, reminding one of a corpse.
They won't find us; but, for G-d's sake, be quiet!
They are close by in the courtyard. Oh! Be quiet, be quiet. . .
The wounded man got hold of the mother and the owner by the hand, while the Mother seized the man who had no coat. There they stood, forming a live chain, looking on at the young woman with her baby.
All of a sudden there broke out a strong and familiar sound, bringing them closer to their terrible fate. What fate that was they knew at once, but they were unwilling to believe it. The sound was repeated. It was the cry of the infant.
Lull him, my dear, said the Mother. Everybody's chest and throat were battling against faintness. The young woman marched up and down the cellar, lulling and coaxing the baby.
You must not cry; sleep my golden one. . . It is I, your mother, my heart. . .
But the child cried on stubbornly, wildly. There must have been something in the woman's face that had no tranquilizing effect.
And now, in this warm and strange underground atmosphere, the woman's brain wrenched out a wild, mad idea. It seemed to her that she had read it in the eyes, in the suffering silence of her companions. And these unhappy, frightened people she was thinking of them. They understood it in the unspeakable tenderness with which she chanted, while drowning the infant's eyes with her own.
He will soon fall asleep, I know. It is always like that; he cries a moment, then he falls asleep at once. He is a very quiet boy. She gave the tall man a painful smile.
From outside there broke in a distant noise. Then came a dull sound, and a crack, shaking the air.
They are searching, whispered the schoolboy. But the infant went on crying, hopelessly.
He will destroy us all, screamed the owner of the cellar.
I shall not give him away no, never! exclaimed the confused mother.
Oh G-d, whispered the wounded man, and covered his face with hands. His hair was unkempt after a sleepless night. The owner of the cellar stared at the infant with persistent eyes.
I don't know you, said the woman in a low voice. Who are you? What do you want from me? She rushed to the other men, but everybody stepped back from her with fear. The infant was crying on, piercing the brains with its shouting.
Give it to me, said the Mother, her eyebrows trembling. The young woman turned around. She stood up on her toes, and with high, uplifting arms, she handed over the child to the Mother. It seemed to her that by doing this she was committing a terrible crime, that hissing voices of the men were cursing her, rejecting her from life forever and ever.
Finding itself in the loving, delicate hands of the Mother, the child grew silent, asleep.
All of a sudden it grew dark in the cellar. Somebody had approached the little window and was listening. At this shadow, breaking in so suddenly, they all grew quiet, they felt that it was coming, it was near. . .
But the young woman interpreted this silence differently. To everyone's surprise, the woman turned grey in a single moment, as if they had poured acid over her hair. As soon as the child's cries died away, there resounded another cry, more awful, more shattering and heart-tearing. The young mother rose up on her toes, grey and terrible. Like the goddess of Justice herself, she shouted in a desperate, inhuman voice that brought destruction with it. Nobody had expected that sudden madness.
The remaining people in the small Ghetto told each other of the shooting of the men, the boy and the infant by the SS-men. No one touched the mad, old woman of 26: she was taken away with the Mother to the dark basement in Flattau's house on Garncarska, which served as a temporary jail before the synagogue, Tomaszow and Treblinka. It was guarded by the Jewish police.
Blood from my split head, mixed with tears, ran down my neck. The henchman Hamer was punishing me viciously with his long, heavy club for trying to kiss, for the last time, my Mother in jail at Garncarska. I didn't feel any pain: I felt the paralyzing fear and grief for my Mother, my Mother.
In October, 1942, at the time of the great aktion in which the Jews of Piotrkow were deported to Treblinka for extermination, my martyred wife Rivka concealed herself in a bunker prepared in the cellar of the house at 2 Plac Czarnieckiego. With her were most of the other members of my family: my parents, Shmuel Gedalia and Esther Friedel; my older sister Rachel (Rozia), her husband Mordechai Frankel, and their son Hansel; Mordechai Frankel's mother Bella; and several other families. In all, some thirty persons had taken shelter there.
The bunker and all its occupants were discovered after the great deportation (October 14-21). Everyone was taken to the mini-ghetto and j ailed, first in the ghetto police lockup and, several days later, in the synagogue, which was used as a prison for illegals.
Extensive efforts to liberate them by intervening with the authorities were fruitless. My entreaties to the Judenrat and the ghetto police, several members of which were acquaintances or friends of ours, were similarly useless.
I corresponded with my late wife by means of Mordechai Kaminski. In one of these exchanges, a tragic vacillation shows through: whom to save first? My late wife insisted that a child with his mother, i.e., my older sister, had priority. However, my hope of rescuing some members of my family by means of a German policeman proved false when, one afternoon, a Gestapo man shot two Jewish policemen, Sandowski and Goldstein may God avenge their blood for having succeeded in freeing their parents from the synagogue. Immediately after this, the German policeman was removed from the case altogether.
|David Reder (now of Brooklyn), amid the ruins inside the
destroyed synagogue in 1945
I was working at the Kara factory at the time. Every day after work, I was escorted to the mini-ghetto and kept under guard. There, however, I devoted most of my efforts to liberating my relatives from the synagogue. I even avoided having to go to work several times, notwithstanding the risk this entailed.
One day, after returning with my work group to the ghetto, I was given the terrible news that all 600 Jews imprisoned in the synagogue had been transported in peasants' wagons to Tomaszow. In fact, they had been taken to the nearby Rakow forest, where they were murdered in cold blood and hurled into a mass grave which 42 men among them had been forced to prepare the previous day.
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