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[Page 284]

On the Roads to the Familiar Shtetl

by Y. Rozenberg, Warsaw

Translated by Tina Lunson

Each time I happen to be on the Podliash soil I am overwhelmed by a gnawing longing. How many reminders of the recent past I am immersed in when an absentminded glance looks at that nap-ending passage of pine trees and succulent Podliash meadows that is cut into my heart.

The train carries us east from Warsaw – to Shedlets. A bright, sunny Sunday morning. People are smiling, whole families with playful children travel to the nearby forests for a respite.

The train runs through the pine trees just barely nodding their heads, hardly noticing the line that the train cuts toward Shedlets. Who can say now that through this very tidy, pleasant station, for over a period of about one year, whole train- transports of Jews sentenced to death all over Europe passed by here to the very close-by, forlorn place of slaughter that is called Treblinke.

Not far from here, over a span of eight months, by day and by night, the dead rose to heaven in the suffocating flame and smoke of the crematories, before the eyes of the residents of dozens of towns and villages. And over the surrounding fields, by day and by night, the horrifying screams were carried.

Here, at the station, onto these same pines and sands, millions of human eyes looked out from the trains that slowly passed this platform on their last journey past the platform of the Shedlets station. Treblilnke is not far from here. Today, over that sacred burial ground, meadow flowers and daisies quietly murmur…

Of the seventeen thousand Shedlets Jews only a few Jewish families remain. The memory of the seventeen thousand Jews cut down is eternalized in the center of the town. In the place where the old Jewish cemetery was once located, a special memorial was installed in honor of their memory.

From Shedlets we take an automobile to Sokolov. Traveling with us is Eli Shteynberg from Paris, who had left the town many years ago; but now he wants to look with his own eyes, to walk the streets where once the sounds of tailors and shoemakers singing about a better and more just world carried through the open windows.

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We travel over the Podliash earth, along the highway which leads from Shedlets to Sokolov. The signs of generations of Jewish life have vanished. Only the abandoned cemeteries give witness that there were Jewish settlements, that Jews lived everywhere here, even in the villages. In these Podliash fields Jews fought against the tsarist armies for Polish freedom and independence. Not far from here, in Kotsk, is the grave of Berek Yoselevitsh. On that very ground Jewish youths jabbed their bayonets into the heart of the Hitleristic human-beasts.

Our automobile turns off onto a sandy side road between thick pine forests. In the village Vola-Vadinska, in the military cemetery among the long mass graves over which slender pine and birch trees wave, you can find the graves of eight Jewish soldiers who fell, along with their Polish fellows, in battle with Hitler's army on the 17th of September 1939. The birches shelter the eight graves with their hanging branches; and some hand has tossed bundles of fresh wildflowers onto the little grass-covered mounds.

This is the village Sukhazshebra. Jewish peasants lived here, Jews with broad shoulders, thick bushy beards and creased, tanned faces, who for generations drew their living from Mother Earth; they sold their dairy products in the surrounding towns, and in the village Podnieshna, the dividing line between the Shedlets and Sokolov districts. The road continues on as a narrow ribbon between fields and forests and suddenly arrives among houses and huts. The small ones are wooden and the tall ones are masonry. Sokolov – the town surfaces unexpectedly. You really have to have a good eye to notice when the fields turn into streets.

Here is Shedlets Street and soon we have gone the length of it. The war has ruined much of it. Vanished, destroyed, the old houses. The stones, though, are near and familiar. We soon find the place of “Libe the baker's” shop, the Jewish porters' and wagon-drivers' “exchange”. We wander down the hill to the old Jewish study-house, where the shul courtyard was, and the “king of the paupers' estate” – the small hunch-backed, bowed-down little houses where the Jewish poor lived. The kingdom of the wagon-drivers, shoemakers and fur coat makers whose houses were separated from the old study-house by the narrow, muddy little stream “Tsitrinka”.

A thick pine forest had sprung up at the site of the old study-house, which was fenced in with wire. Although the sky was a deep blue and the

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sun was hot, it was dark in there. You could hardly push your way through the small trunks and footpaths. The pines were thick and their branches entangled, and reminded one of clasped hands. As before when we rascals used to gather apples in the overgrown grass of the cemetery grounds…

We did not walk from alleyway to lane, we ran. Here is where “Shmakedeske” the village traveler and fruit-seller lived, and there “Shleyme Fertsiker” the teacher. Here is where we went to kheyder. And further along on the left stretched Lipove Street, or as Jews used to call it “among the trees”, where in summer you could walk under a bower of leaves.

Here is the strolling garden near the cloister that used to be noisy with Jewish youths, with the chestnut trees still growing, their crowns grown thick. Oy! If the old trees could talk! How many whispers of love in Yiddish have they overheard?

The slaughter of the Sokolov Jews took place in the small market square. For three days the fascist murderers simply slaughtered their defenseless victims here. The buildings around the square had been destroyed. Already other ones had sprung up, one-story red brick houses. On the neighboring Ragovski Street the half-ruined building “meshenem” of worn-out, crumbling bricks still stands. Elye Shteynberg was born and educated here. In the dark, depressing corridor doors are open and the flaxen heads of children pour out. And it seems to us that from some door we should see a familiar face should emerge… Shteynberg ran his glance over the four walls that were once “their home”. Through the window we can see the fields and meadows and once again feel the gruesome truth that no one, not one of the children remains.

To the left of Rogov Street sits the Nietshetse highway. Jews used to come here on shabes to the “water tree”. Even now the old, bowed-over weeping willow stands by the water. In autumn the reflection in the water will be full of golden and copper leaves, like tears from the weeping willow for her one-time visitors.

It is already evening, but it is hard to tear ourselves from the homey town. I want to engrave it in my heart, in my memory, everything that we have seen. When we leave the town the sun is already setting fire-red behind the edge of the world. A silvery moon accompanies us on the road to Shedlets as if she wanted, with her cool, soothing shine, to quiet the pain of the reopened wound in our hearts.

(Contributed by Ester Rozenberg – Ana, in Israel)

 

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