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The Priest and the Rabbi

by Yehuda Har-Zohar

Translated by Jerrold Landau

During their tour of the Land in the spring of 5624 (1964), someone from the family of Yehuda Axelrad-Hamerman-Weitzner, today living in the United States, came to spend a night with us. We sat with them until the early hours of the morning, and listened attentively to their war experiences in Czechoslovakia.

Among the other stories that he told us, I wish to bring down one story that Mr. Axelrad told me about what happened to his only son, 8 years old, during the terrible days.

After the conquest of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis, after they moved their place of residence several times so that the neighbors will not recognize them, and seeing that the place was becoming more and more difficult by the day, they suspected that one day they would be captured and their fate would be like the rest of the Jews. The parents decided among themselves that at least their only son should remain alive. Perhaps he would be able to be saved from death.

Despite the fact that he was very young, an 8-year-old child, he knew very well what was going on around him and the danger that was flying over their heads. They knew about the persecutions and tribulations that came to them solely because they were Jewish, despite the fact that he knew nothing about Judaism other than the few words that his parents taught him, which symbolized his entire Judaism. These are the few words of Shema Yisrael. He did not understand their meaning, but with his child's knowledge, he knew that he was ready to give his life for them.

The parents took counsel about how to ensure that their only son would remain alive. The thought and decided not to put their faith in the good will of the gentiles by giving over their son to one of the gentiles so that he could be hidden, raised and educated, for at a time of difficulty he would not be able to stand up to this, and the fate of the child would be sealed. Therefore, the only sure place would be in a church. However, how does one get him in there? In what manner and by what means? They decided to approach the priest of the nearby church. Mrs. Axelrad would dress up as one of the gentiles of the neighborhood and explain that when she was a maid of a noble Czech family, she raised and reared this child. Then, one day, the Nazis took the parents to an unknown place. Since she had to earn her living by the work of her hands, she begged the priest to accept this child under his care. She would be willing to give of her money to the church for the kindness that they are doing.

The priest agreed to her request, dressed him in the clothes of young priest apprentices, and entered him into the children's choir of the church. Mrs. Axelrad would go to the church on occasion, apparently to worship, but actually to snatch a glance at her child, the apple of her eye. She saw him wearing a white robe over his clothes, with an incense container in his hands, bringing the goblet of sacred wine to the priest.

The child always found an excuse to steal away during the prayers in order to snatch a brief conversation with his mother, who always waited for him in a dark corner inside the church or at the gate. Since the child was wise, he knew how to fit himself in with the rest of the children in the church with his abilities, and especially with his knowledge of the Czech language. On account of his talents, he became the right hand man of the editor of the church bulletin. This enabled him to be freer with his movements. Since he was busy with the bulletin, he was sent out to obtain paper, to go to the printer, or to do other such tasks. This enabled him to meet up with his mother almost every day at a set time in the public gardens.

After the war, the child went with his parents to the United States. He began to study the language of the country, to attend a primary school, and later high school and university. He excelled in his studies and attained great success. One day, he was called to lecture on his profession at one of the venerable and well known universities in the State of Ohio. He was forlorn in the purely gentile environment, and he searched around to see if he would find at least one Jewish student with whom he could forge a connection. He was about to give up, and then suddenly a veteran professor of Jewish origins came to him and told him that there were several Jewish students there who hid their Judaism. He somehow found out their names, and invited them in a private fashion to his room. During a friendly conversation and with an open heart, he asked them if they would be willing to meet with him one day and to have a free and open discussion. If they were going to meet already, would it not be easiest on the Sabbath eve? One of the students immediately revealed that he knew that there was a wealthy citizen in town of Jewish origin. When they turned to him and explained that there were several Jewish students who wished to meet once a week, he was very happy to hear this and offered his home. He offered his fine parlor for a meeting place. George was the living spirit of this small group. He immediately contacted the national Hillel Foundation, the organization of Jewish students. They sent him the needed material for conducting activities of a Hillel House.

At first, they gathered in the parlor of that Jew on Sabbath eves. The wife of the host was honored with the lighting of Sabbath candles. First she did this unwillingly and with fear, but after several Sabbaths, she became accustomed to the candle lighting ceremony in the Hillel hall. Then, the female students took turns at this, and the lighting of the Sabbath candles was thought of as a great honor, with each person waiting patiently for her turn.

George received all sorts of material for the national organization about leading discussions on various Jewish and religious topics. Debates developed, and life became quite interesting. On occasion, another hidden Jew joined up, and another Jewish heart began to beat. The light of the Sabbath candles ignited the hidden Jewish spark, and the Jewish heart was opened wide. The small circle expanded and grew. It became necessary to rent a hall for special gatherings, and of course everything was done by that Jew who had originally hidden his Judaism and was now so proud of his deeds, and gave himself over to the success of this matter with his whole heart.

One day, another professor appeared at the Hillel house and revealed that he was Jewish. He had heard about the lovely activities at the Hillel House, and since his son was approaching the age of Bar Mitzvah, he requested that this large celebration could take place there. He asked George to organize the celebration as he best saw fit. George immediately contacted the headquarters and received guidance and appropriate materials. He prepared a sermon for the event. The celebration took place with great success, and there was a great resonance among all the Jews from the sermon and the celebration.

Once it happened that one of the local Jewish students lost his father. He immediately turned to “Rabbi” George to arrange the funeral. Once again, George was perplexed. How do you bury a Jew? How to arrange a Bar Mitzvah he had already learned, but he did not now how to arrange a Jewish burial. It would be in the Christian cemetery, but the ceremony must be Jewish. He immediately contacted me and asked me what is said during a burial, and how does one conduct the ceremony. Of course I guided him, and the ceremony took place in peace. Without other options, and with the passage of time, my son George became the “Rabbi” who conducted the prayers from an English translation, and obtained Jewish books in order to not become confused at any time of need. Slowly but surely, my son George, instead of turning into a priest or a cardinal as had been prophesied about him, turned into the local rabbi, without whose advice nobody would make a move.

This is the story of our friend Mr. Aleksander-Hamerman-Weitzner1.


And Thus it Was…

by Z. Friedler

Translated by Jerrold Landau

And it was… And there was a city called Rozniatow, which expanded with its firm Jewish reality, with its Torah scholars and Zionist dreamers, its people who sat and studied all day and its simple Jews, who bore the anguish of all the exiles and the tumult of the various businesses and commerce, with all its weekday concerns and festival joy. Everyone had faith that there was an order in the world, until the black night came and wiped everything away.

Only the few who survived weep by the rivers of the world over the great destruction. Every fact that I mention here, every photograph of a Rozniatow Jew, of individual personalities and entire family, all of them are a brick in the monument to the former life in our old home, a remembrance to the fine lives of our fathers and grandfathers before them, who split the heavens with their Torah and prayer, with singing and dance – and at the same time with the songs lectures and readings that led to a modern expression of Judaism. It is also a memory to the horrors that all the Jews went through.

At the memorial ceremony in 5731 / 1971


At the memorial ceremony in 5731 / 1971


At the memorial ceremony in 5731 / 1971


At the memorial ceremony in 5731 / 1971

To you, Jewish Rozniatow, all of our children until the farthest generations should know how beautiful you shine in our hearts and memories. We loved your poor soil, Rozniatow, the marketplace that bustled with business, the cheders and Beis Midrashes that radiated with holiness. Only few remain alive in various corners of the world. Everyone bears with themselves not only the black anguish and pain of the horrible destruction, but also the desire that their children and grandchildren will concern themselves with elevating the souls of their grandparents. They should read these simple words that are told in this book about that life and about the terrible destruction. They should understand and feel how many tears and how much weeping lies among these letters.


Translator's Footnote

  1. The double hyphenated triple name at the end does not match that which is at the beginning. Back

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