by Moyshe Shulshteyn, Paris
Translated by Yael Chaver
Moshe Shulshteyn, Paris. A renowned poet, especially among extreme left-wing Jewish workers. Traveled from Paris to Poland after World War II, and visited Kurow, his home town. He met the remaining Jews, and also had conversations with several peasants who had helped to conceal Jews.
He describes the destruction he encountered in the town. Not only were there no buildings left not even a trace of the house where his family had lived for years and his father had labored at a sewing machine; even the cemetery had been erased, and was now a grain field sown with rye and oats. There was no remnant of the Jewish life that had formerly flourished in the town.
He remembers his childhood years there, and leaves the town, sad and with an aching heart. But his political leanings and his joy at the new regime in Poland prevent him from mourning the destruction too deeply. He is therefore especially happy to recount the actions of the few Poles who had rescued several Jews…
When I prepared for my trip to Poland, I decided that I would visit my ruined home town, Kurow, at any price.
I say at any price, because whenever I would express my desire to go there, I would be counseled to be careful and wait a bit longer until matters were calmer. It is well known, they said, that the Lublin region is not good; there are still various gangs, the so-called klopsy z lasu (boys from the forest). Other friends of mine, who certainly meant well and were were genuinely devoted to me, warned me not to be ruled by sentiment, as the risk was not worth taking.
I listened attentively to all the advice, and thought my own thoughts: I will be in Kurow. Nothing will stop me. I will go there, no matter the cost.
I left Kurow when I was fourteen, along with my family, when my parents decided to move to Warsaw in the hopes of a better livelihood. But I never really left the town in my dreams and daydreams. Wherever I happened to be, I always felt most at home and most comfortable with the town's characters and types; my gaze was always fixed on the tranquil landscape of Kurow. The time that had passed gradually became softened by a thin mist, like a delicate bride's veil, that separated me from the town, like a slight film of dust over a beautiful painting. The adoring hand hovers over the painting, barely brushing it with a handkerchief that won't damage it or diminish its impression. This is what I do with the delicate tissue of memory: I clear my clouded gaze as I would a mirror fogged with dew; and
|The writer Moyshe Shulshteyn in Kurow, at the site of his destroyed house, now only a field with not even the slightest vestige of ruins|
once again see the fresh and beautiful panorama of my town, so dear to me.
I always had limitless love and gratitude for Kurow, with good reason. Not only was it the town whose ground stretched generously before my childish steps; it also revealed the wondrous beauties of nature and taught me to love them. Kurow murmured the first songs and poems to me, moved my heart for the first time, and made it vibrate with the most beautiful hymns to human life just like my mother, who brought me to the kheyder even though I had no inkling of my destination.
As far as I was concerned, the town was the prototype of all towns. I could love other towns as well; mainly, those found in the works of Jewish writersbut I never betrayed my own town. I loved Kabtsansk and Tuneyadevke, Mazepevke, and Kasrilevke. But I saw all of them in Kurow. I would roam the literary towns as I walked through Kurow.
I had heard that my town had been completely annihilated during the wild German onslaught in Poland. It had been destroyed at the very beginning of the war by the Nazi bombardments. This was because the Polish government had fled in the direction of Lublin, and was accompanied by the German air force, which singed and roasted on its way. Mainly, however, they set fire to anything in their path, and completely incinerated it.
So it was that Kurow was blotted from the face of the earth as early as in 1939. Not a single Jewish house
was left. The rest was done in Majdanek, an hour away from Kurow; like a monster, it overlooked my town, lurking like a wild animal preparing for its prey. When it finally had its wish, not a single bone remained.
Not a single bone and not the slightest bloody road.
As soon as I arrived in Poland, I inquired about a visit to Kurow. My friends, Jewish community activists, contacted the regional Jewish Committee in Lublin and asked them to help me fulfil my strong desire to visit my home town. Kurow is in Lublin County, and Lublin would be the best source of information about conditions there. Also, I might run into another native of Kurow.
And indeed, I was helped by the chairman of the Lublin Jewish Committee, the former partisan Grisha Zaydenvar, and another native of Kurow, Berl Ritser, and his 18-year-old son; the Ritsers and their entire family had been concealed during the war by Polish peasants in the area. They were living in Lublin, and willingly agreed to accompany me to my home town.
As it happened, the day was the Christian holiday of Corpus Christi, when even Jews have time off. Thus, I could occupy my friends' free day with a clear conscience; and, by the way, they were happy to devote the time. However, though the holiday enabled me to use my friends' day off with no pangs of conscience, it also caused travel problems. The only travel between Lublin and Kurow is still by bus. We are not sure of its schedule; due to the holiday, its frequency was lower. When we approach it in the market square, it is already full. It is an odd-looking coach, closed and cramped, with people standing crowded together. There is no room for us. We need to find something else. Zaydenvar begins to look into it, but I see that he is very worried; he cannot find a car because of the holiday. Finally, he notices a truck waiting on Lubartowska Street, with a group of people already on it. Zaydenvar approaches the truck, talks to someone, and quickly calls us over. It seems that we will be traveling. The vehicle belongs to one of the trade unions, and is carrying a group of workers on an excursion to Kazimierz. As Kurow is on the way, the driver is willing to drop us off there, and pick us up later on his way back to Lublin.
Our trip is a mixture of holiday and weekday, of joy and sorrow. An ordinary truck with people going, and among the passengers is
a man who is returning to his beloved childhood home after more than twenty years. Of course, he should be happy at such an exalted moment. But how can he rejoice when he knows what has happened to his childhood location?…
The truck moves away from Lublin. The houses grow sparser and smaller. We are on the road from Lublin to Kurow.
There used to be such bustling traffic of Jews on this road! People in vehicles and people on foot, merchants and business owners; Jews on their way to fairs, or going to Lublin to buy wares for their businesses. Now the Lublin-Kurow road is quiet. Jewish traffic has vanished; the last squeak of overstuffed Jewish carts is gone in silence and pain, leaving no echo. It is silent, so wretchedly silent…
The truck touches on small towns and villages and leaves them behind. The spare Polish landscape of sparse forest and flat land dominates the scene. Occasionally, a foolish dog pesters us with its irritated barking: how dare we travel on its road! It chases us tenaciously, until it realizes that its efforts are in vain: he won't catch us, let alone take a bite out of the truck. It decides to stay behind, finally resigned and calm.
By the roadside a peasant horse stands hitched to its cart. The slow, sensitive horse is frightened by the unpredictable, alien devil, and dislikes it. It sniffles, searches for a comforting touch, and is practically beside itself. The peasant must jump off the cart, restrain it, and calm it, as one would do with a child, with soft words and a tender touch.
Our truck often needs to turn onto a side road, not because it fears the horse just as the horse fears it, but because the old Lublin road, with its uneven, jutting cobblestones, is being refashioned into a smooth new highway. We must therefore turn into a temporary dirt road that is deep in sand. Our truck vanishes completely in a gigantic cloud of dust raised by us. However, there is no choice; we must see it through.
We spend a long time inside the thick cloud, which is so dense that we cannot even see each other. Finally, we are able to turn back onto the main road.
The kilometers pass, as does the hour's journey. Here we are, in Markuszów, five km from Kurow. These Jewish towns always had a close connection and people would visit each other. On Saturday afternoons,
when young people would go walking on the Lublin road, the folks from Kurow would walk as far as Markuszów, and those from Markuszów would walk to Kurow. Any entertainment that came to Markuszów would be attended by people from Kurow, and vice versa. Both groups came to performances by the local drama clubs or by a travelling theatrical troupe, and enjoyed them together.
I have some memories of Markuszów, which I visited several times as a child during holidays and fairs. My lasting impression is of noise and human tumult, many loud voices, and whinnying horses. Now, as I pass through the town, there is not a single soul to be seen. Markuszów itself looks nothing like a populated town.
We don't stop here, or anywhere on the road. We keep going. Only a few more kilometers and I will be in Kurow. My heart is bursting with emotion and expectation. Soon…soon… We ask the truck driver to let us off a kilometer and a half from Kurow, so that we can enter the town at our leisure, and contemplate everything calmly. None of us would be opposed. The weather happened to be mild, a sunny spring day. The old, familiar Kurow sun senses my sorrowful return, and guides me everywhere, though I remember everything very well.
The Lublin highway!
This is where the young people of Lublin would gather and go for walks on Saturdays and in the evenings, and scatter on the roadside grass. Some had books, some brought paper twists of sunflower or pumpkin seeds, and some had a pack of flirtation cards. The old linden and oak trees I see heard youthful giggles and songs, heated discussions about clericalism and free love, and have locked it all away forever… Here is the yellow synagogue and the lovely avenue of alders that extends to the left and reaches the landowner's courtyard, to the hoyvilitsa.
Here, it is still possible to entertain the illusion that Kurow exists. It is, however, only the beginning of the town, and simultaneously its end. I recognize, on my right, the handsome, brick, single-storey building of the municipality, and the red-and-white walls of the administrative offices which also house the jail for local offenders. A bit further along on the left is the priest's garden and the church, which is intact. Yes, the same church that I was afraid to look at; I would turn my head away, so as not to commit a sin. I am struck by the faded remains of a Polish inscription on the brick fence, from a bygone time: nie kupuj od Żydów -- don't buy from Jews. When the anti-Semitic slogan was daubed, there were Jews in Kurow, and the anti-Semites naturally
had a target for their inscription. But now? Why has the hooligans' slogan persisted? Why do the anti-Semites need it? What use is it to them now? How tragic and ridiculous the leftover and neglected inscription is today, when there is not a single Jew towards whom the slogan is directed!…
The inscription on the fence brings me painfully nearer to Kurow, the long-gone living Kurow of a time when the anti-Semites had someone to engage with. It is precisely the inscription that directs me towards the long-gone Jewish shops, the market full of Jewish merchants, the bustling fairs, Jewish trade.
But in addition to that Kurow, now faded in the dust of the priest's garden fence, there is another Kurow, which I soon have the chance to see for myself. My fellow townsman, Berl Ritser, takes us to visit a Polish acquaintance on the Lublin road. This is my first meeting with a resident of Kurow. He receives us very cordially in the courtyard of his small, new constructed house. He offers us water for washing up, and a brush to clear the dust of travel. I am introduced to him. He remembers my parents, mentions names, and the bowl of water and brush seem more familiar… He tells us that during the years of the German occupation he would bring food to the fields, for Khanesman a survivor from Kurow who was hiding here. The man is now in Paris, he complains, and never writes to him. This decent Polish citizen of Kurow is probably right, and I promise to search for our townsman and remind him of his rescuer.
In general, the Christian residents of Kurow behaved decently toward their Jewish neighbors, compared with other locations. We have already told Kurow survivors in Poland about this. In one town people knew of a peasant who concealed Jews; in another town, people knew of a woman who had taken in a Jewish family after all the Jewish homes had been destroyed. The most important positive fact about our town is that in any case, Kurow did not help to turn in its Jewish residents.
We arrive at the place where the town of Kurow once stood. I would have recognized it immediately, if I had seen it. But it is gone; it does not exist. The image of the town lives only in my memory; it has done so for many years, and I cannot grasp that it is really gone from the face of the earth, and that the large open space is all that remains of my home town.
Woe is me! What cruel sorcery has made everything disappear without a trace? I have seen destruction; I saw the Warsaw ghetto, where there are no actual ruins but only a huge area filled with debris, broken plaster, and bricksyet those are the remains of one-time Jewish Warsaw. But here, where there were once streets, buildings, life, there is only grassland, a neglected, overgrown area.
After Kurow was bombed in 1939, some ruins remained. But fire cannot completely consume every trace. Later, after Kurow had been emptied of its Jewish population, the Christian residents pillaged any remains of the charred houses that could be useful as heating material or otherwise. The entire area was scrubbed clean, as if it had never been the site of a town.
I'm standing on the spot where my parents' house once stood. Now, it's a field of potatoes. A bit further on, there is a small, new house that resembles a barracks. Suddenly, someone comes out of the house. It is a young woman, apparently the housewife. She locks the door carefully, looking at me, the stranger, with suspicion. Oh, she certainly has no concept of the deep connection I have to this place.
Nearby, right and left, there used to be the houses of our neighbors Khaskl Beyger and Mendl Mulyes. There was no space between the houses, or between neighbors. Everything was joined, molded into one space, just as the neighbors were eventually joinedprobably in a common grave or in the same heap of ashes. The imposing house of the Shneurs, the fabric merchants, was right here. It was the finest, tallest brick building in town. Now, all the traces of its glory are overgrown with tall weeds.
I turn into Itshe Shneur's alley, now a barely discernible narrow path. Here is where Moshke the ritual slaughterer's lane used to be. The kheyder where Getsl melamed taught, the first kheyder I attended, is right across from Moshe's basement slaughterhouse. The lane was always full of our childish voices, as well as feathers and bloodstains from the slaughtered fowls. Friday mornings were terrifying, when a slaughtered chicken might rise up and confront me with a heartbreaking expression, as if blaming me for its death.
I recognize the various locations thanks to specific features, such as a slope here and there, following the natural features that persist. This is how I recognize the grounds of the house of study, the old cemetery that has existed for centuries, and the grounds of the old synagogue, one of the oldest and most beautiful in Poland. Now
it consists of small potato patches.
There are no buildings to block the view, and my gaze ranges far away over the distant meadows behind the town. It had once been possible to say behind the town; now, the phrase is meaningless, as behind the town looks just like the town. It seems that those distant meadows have become larger. My gaze now reaches as far as the Small Zhikastream, now completely dry and overgrown with grass.
Once, on hot summer days, the stream area was full of the clamor and laughter of bathing boys and girls. The girls, covered modestly with blouses and shirts, bathed separately, at a distance from the boys. As a small child, I was no danger to the girls; they weren't alarmed when I approached, and even teased me. I was proud of the fact that they teased me and not the older boys. But I felt simultaneously privileged and bewildered; they had made me nothing, worthless, not even feared by the girls. I didn't understand why they had to conceal their bodies while we boys bathed naked. I wanted to see them naked, as I simply could not stand to see nice dry clothes and towels made wet in the river for no good reason.
The girls would rouse me from my thoughts with their laughter and slaps at the water, which splashed me all over.
To this day, I yearn for that cold, sweet splash, like a thirsty plant that stretches towards the reviving rain.
The older boys, the guys, did not dare to come here, to the womens' zone, a kind of women's section in the stream.
Once in a while, a good swimmer who was mischievous and impudent would dive in on our side, the men's zone, disappear, and swim underwater for a long time until he touched a girl's leg; then suddenly pop up in the womens' section of the river, which resounded with loud, sweet squeals of surprised and frightened girls.
Oh, that beloved, charming clamor, which now sounds in my heart so sadly! It has dried up, like the Small Zhika itself. But perhaps it is better that the stream is now part of the surrounding wasteland. In any case, there is no one to bathe in it today as people did long ago…
We set out for the new cemetery, on the Puławy road.
Most of the Poles we meet on the way recognize my fellow townsman Berl Ritser, and greet us. Some of them show interest, and some are surprised to see us, living Jews. One of them turns to us: Well, it seems that living with Jews is not good, but when you see them you cheer up… Yet he does not say Jews but Jewboys (zhidki), a diminutive that Poles began to commonly use after the war… Apparently, they felt they might insult us by using the plain zhid, and the diminutive seemed more polite.
When I began to hear it, I thought it was said derisively. I mention this to my companions. Grisha Zaydenvar says that he had the same impression at first, and responded, What kind of Jewboy am I? Do you see a Jewboy here? What you're seeing is an adult, healthy Jew! A Jew who has killed and destroyed Germans! He goes on to regale us with his wonderful tales of his years in the resistance. We were so engrossed in his storytelling that we hardly noticed when we reached the new cemetery on the Puławy road. This cemetery was once new and is now no longer a cemetery at all.
I am very familiar with the Puławy road. Unlike the Lublin road, young folks were rarely to be seen here. On the other hand, it was one's last road, willy-nilly. The road still remembers the wails and cries of the Jewish funerals that traveled it, leaving sorrow and fear in their tracks. People did not like this road, and avoided it.
Here is the mill's gloomy brick building, at the roadside. The stream that ensured its livelihood, and which women used for dishwashing and laundry, had been neglected even before the war, and was now dry.
Here we are, at the cemetery-field.
The term fieldis indeed more fitting here, as there are neither fence nor gravestones. I had hoped to find a familiar gravestone bearing the names of my grandparents, or of relatives who had died before the war. But there is no trace of their remains. So, the entire cemetery is a beloved grave, as well as the grave of my parents and family who were all slaughtered somewhere by Hitler's murderers.
A young Pole carrying a child, whose home is near the cemetery, comes out, asks who we are, and tells us what he knows about the cemetery.
The gravestones were ripped out by the Germans and used to build a road in Klementowice, a village not far from Kurow. The section of the cemetery that had been vacant was used for crop-growing. The other portion of the cemetery, where grave mounds were barely visible through tall, overgrown grass, was looked after by a Christian; he made sure that animals did not graze there and defile it.
The young Pole apparently realizes that we have come to visit our ancestors' graves and may be thinking that one of us is a rich foreigner searching for traces of his dead relatives, who would pay handsomely for the slightest information or clue. He asks us which grave we are seeking; he can show it to us. However, we have serious doubts concerning his expertise: how can he, without the slightest trace of a gravestone, guess at the location of a certain grave? He could simply point at the best-looking grave and say that it is the one we are asking about. And just as he cannot prove that he is speaking the truth, so we cannot prove that he is lying… No. We thank him for his courtesy and willingness to help, but we are not searching for a specific grave.
We can believe him, though, when he shows us a mass grave of twenty Jews who were shot, and whose names he cannot remember, by the way. But the fact that there is a mass grave of Kurow Jews is evident from the slight dip of the spot, visible under the tall grass.
It is almost dusk when we reach the location that used to be the center of town, where the roads from Warsaw, Lublin, and Puławy intersect. This was the site where horse-drawn wagons, buses, porters, idlers and people seeking work gathered. This is where the first news from the outside world was heard. Now the surroundings are empty and alien, and only the paving at the crossroads, where my childish feet stood, is familiar and dear. There are only a few temporary shops at the quiet bus station. In Piechowicz's tavern a small shop on the spot where his large house used to stand several well-dressed townspeople come in. They have a glass of 90-proof brandy and accompany it with tasty Kielbasa sausage. Piechowicz's business is the same as ever. The world has been turned upside down, the town of Kurow
has been flattened, and Piechowicz continues as before, with the same Kielbasa and 90+-proof brandy. The patrons and buddies smoke makhorka and gossip, occasionally inserting a word in Yiddish (mazl-tov; metsiye; khutspe) flaunting a familiarity that stems from the old days.
The tavern has a view of the field where Moyshe Sholem's house once stood; he was the best tailor in town, and even landowners would have him make their clothes. His apprentices would sneak in to Piechowicz's for a bit of boser-kvitsh, and smuggle the non-kosher meat into the workshop under their clothes.
Only now, as we wait for our bus, do we look more closely at the mound of soil where the large building of the firefighters once stood. It is a grave, the grave of a Soviet soldier who was killed here by a treacherous hand as he was on his way to the great Soviet victory and liberation of 1944.
You see, my fellow Kurow native informs me, this grave has never been moved or desecrated, though it would be easy to do.
Actually, I find it hard to view this as consolation for the fact that the grave is here at all. It is remarkable, I think, that everything has gone from Kurow, but something has been added: a grave in the very center of town, a grave that came about thanks to local murderous hands that are related to the hands that killed Kurow.
A dark speck appears on the dim Puławy road; it grows larger and larger a truck. As it nears, we realize that it is our vehicle, come at long last from Kazimierz. We climb up and settle down, and the truck soon sets out again. The engine groans once, then again, encouraging itself like an aspiring singer who coughs to test his throat before singing and we start moving.
The twilight, Piechowicz's tavern and its friendly host, gaze at me sadly. Instinctively, we both raise our arms in farewell:
Adieu, I say into the wasteland, which was once my home town and from which the animals had uprooted not only every trace of Jewish life, but every trace of its murder as well. But they were unable to uproot Kurow from my heart. The panorama of the town has been carried in my memory through all the hazards; my memory preserves it. My memory refuses to believe that the town was really gone. It is convinced that the town lives, and will stay alive.
With Berl Ritser's Rescuers
It is well known that some sections the Polish population were indifferent to the great calamity that befell the Jews, as well as some that helped the invader to exterminate the Jews. However, there are Jews who tend to generalize. Whenever there is talk of enemies of the Jews, they point to all the nations of the world. If treacherous Poles are mentioned, they point to all Poles, including innocent and even virtuous people who helped Jews and saved their lives. The latter, few as they are, deserve at least not to be included among those who killed and betrayed us. We also tend to make martyrs of all the Ya'akov Genses and Rumkowskysthe hundreds of betrayers, Judenrat heads, Gestapo agents, kapos, and informerswho are numbered among the six million Jewish victims. This is the case although these shameful Jewish outcasts and renegades are responsible for the fate of many of the victims whom they eventually joined.
I abhor such generalizing, and certainly don't intend to do it. I want to separate good and bad. The dark banner of indifference to our sufferings and the evil of those Poles who betrayed their own people should put into greater relief the decent actions of honest, scrupulous Polish citizens who showed us friendship and devotion in times of greatest human testing, while putting their own lives at risk.
I want to tell you now about such Poles, whom I was able to visit.
It is a Polish family from the village of Płonki, near my hometown of Kurow; they concealed the Jewish Ritser family of Kurow in the loft of their barn. I was especially moved to meet the rescuers and the rescued together, and to spend a few hours in their company.
It was during my visit to Kurow. I was happy to take up the suggestion of my fellow townsman, Berl Ritser, to go to Płonki and visit his benefactors.
Płonki is two kilometers from Kurow. I knew it well from my childhood years. During the summer, my parents leased orchards there. The best time was when we would leave the town, sit high on the wagon with parents, children, bedding, and pots, and start traveling into the beautiful world of summer with its fields, forests, and streams. Even the wagon trip was a
source of great pleasure, let alone the arrival in the Promised Land. It was a joy to settle into the thatched hut in the orchard, feeling that we owned it and the fresh air, watching our trees grow, and their fruit grow to a respectable size…
These memories made me even more eager to visit Płonki. I was secretly proud and happy that it was peasants of Płonki, a place about which I had so many beautiful childhood memories, who concealed Jews and were whole-heartedly ready to risk their lives for them.
Berl Ritser guides us to a shortcut, through meadows and side paths, avoiding the usual route to the village. Everything all around is green and greener. There's not a single cottage, no stable, no barn. Only pastures and meadows. Here and there on this festive Corpus Christi morning we encounter a peasant with his cow or horse that are chewing their breakfast, apparently believing that food is more important than the holiday. The peasant is watchful, taking care of his charge, honoring the holiday by speaking to it gently and convincing it to eat politely and not be distracted or overeat.
When they see us coming in single file on the narrow path, man and animal raise their heads for a moment, marvel at us, and continue what they were doing as if nothing had occurred.
Berl Ritser leads the way, guiding us along the well-worn paths, the small streams and their ramshackle single-board bridges. One should say the vidui before setting foot on such bridges. He leads us in this way until we reach
|Moshe Shulshteyn, the peasant of Płonki, and Berl Ritser (now living in Toronto, Canada)|
our destination, the house of his rescuer, which is barely visible among a great tangle of greenery.
It is a typical Polish cottage of a well-off family, with a white zinc roof, windows full of flower pots, and an entry porch. Various plants extend through the fence openings, over the path, and push out impudently through the tiniest openings and cracks. The housewife emerges onto the porch: a thin, elderly woman, who welcomes Berl Ritser and his eighteen-year-old son with a pleasant, friendly smile. This is the woman who rescued Berl Ritser and his family: Hanka Ludwikowa. She welcomes us Grisha Zaydenvar and me just as pleasantly. She makes our acquaintance, invites us all in to the house, seats us at the table and prepares food for us. Meanwhile, she asks Berl how everything is going and whether he has all that he needs. The table is soon set with jugs of milk, bread and butter, potatoes, and earthenware pots of cream. Ms. Ludwikowa enjoys serving us, and refuses our offers of help to set the table, though she is alone in the house her son has gone to another village and both her daughters are at church. Yet the old woman wants to manage it all by herself, and makes sure that her guests have all they need.
I look at the house in detail. A brief glance into the other rooms reveals beds with pyramids of white pillows and cushions. The window sills are full of vases with flowers. Holy images and figurines of Jesus and Mary complete the decorations.
Once, more than a quarter of a century ago, whenever I used to come to Płonki and peek into such peasant homes, I would be frightened and repulsed by everything. Not only by the holy images, but also by the simple, innocent flowers in the windows. The featherbeds and pillows, which were actually normal featherbeds and pillows made of cloth and feathers, were the same as those in Jewish homes yet I saw them as evidence of sin, somehow reeking of death and hell. I would immediately turn my glance away.
How far away it all is!…
How good it is to be able to walk around freely now, with no fears.
I was lost in thoughts about Ludwikowa's house and completely forgot to start eating. Grisha Zaydenvar and I don't wait long to be asked and courageously turn to our dishes of thick cream. However, I notice that Berl Ritser hesitates, makes no move towards his plate, and is not interested in eating. I assume that it is due to religious customs.
Berl is a religiously observant Jew, though he doesn't look like one, and this seems to be the reason he is holding back. I look at the porcelain figurine of the Holy Mother stretching her arms wide, which decorates our table. She is smiling sweetly and graciously, as though wishing us a good appetite. I look at her simply and indifferently, as one looks at a child's doll. But Berl Ritser, sitting right next to me? How does he look at her? Could she be making him uneasy, taking his appetite away?
Eat, I urge him softly. Don't let her bother you. Eat she doesn't care about you at all.
I understand that, just as he is embarrassed to eat while the Holy Mother is on the table, he is embarrassed not to eat with us, not to join the group. He excuses himself to us, saying that his stomach seems to be upset and he is not hungry. In any case, I decide not to press him. In addition, so as not to further embarrass him and even to ease his situation, I am careful to take his upset stomach seriously, and even seek a folk remedy for him.
But old lady Ludwikowa sees that he is not eating, and constantly presses him, cajoling him like she would a child: Berku, cynku moj (she even calls him Berele, my dear son), eat, I tell you. If you don't eat I'll say that you're disgusted by me…
Both of us, Grisha Zaydenvar and I, are so moved by this accusation that we encourage Berl Ritser to make an effort and at least taste something so that he does not embarrass the bowl of cream; and more importantly, does not offend the housewife. There she is, standing over him and begging. Her pleasant face is beaming; each crease on her wrinkled face joins in her smile of pleasure as Berl puts his spoon into his bowl. However, as soon as she turns away, he asks us to help finish his portion, so that she won't hold a grudge against him. We help him out this time, martyring ourselves for the sake of the cream…
Here come Ludwikowa's two young daughters from church, a bit surprised but happy to see us in their house. Their dresses are colorful, festive, like ordinary young Polish peasant woman on a feast day. Although I know where they are coming from, I am not bothered by it. It seems that I see them going to the barn, carrying pots of food for the Jewish Ritser family hiding in the hayloft.
And in fact, we are accompanied by Wanda and Stefa, our host's daughters, as we start out to seeks the traces of the hideout.
Standing, from right: One daughter, Moyshe Shulshteyn, the other daughter
Seated: The adults who hid Berl Ritser and his family; Ritser (now in Canada) is at left
Ludwikowa's barn is like any other barn. The two cows standing by the wall and chewing their cuds probably stood just as innocently a few years ago, when the concealed Jews stayed there, at great risk to themselves and their rescuers. At that time, the cows on the ground floor were often frightened by unfamiliar movements. These were the stirrings of the Ritsers overhead, deep as they were in straw and darkness. All four family members existed in this way for almost a year, living as best they could, celebrating Shabbes and holidays. A single opening in the loft provided a view of the world, consisting of two or three twigs and few patches of sky. It was through this opening, no larger than a fist, that the four of them watched for deliverance. It finally arrived on July 25, 1944, when the Red Army liberated the region.
As they were religious observant and would not eat non-kosher food, their diet was meager and austere. They did not approve of the Ludwikow's slaughtering practice, and so ate no meat. Their two neighbors, the cows below, made efforts to supply them with enough milk. During Passover, the Ritsers would not eat foods forbidden during the holiday, and they subsisted solely on potatoes, which Ludwikowa cooked for them in a special, kosher pot. She set aside all
the dairy products for them. She wouldn't let anyone have a taste, explaining that as the Jews would eat no meat or bread, all the dairy products were for them. Wanda and Stefa did not object, nor did the two cows. They were happy to let themselves be milked for this kosher purpose, and patiently submitted their full udders to the bucket that supplied the hiding Jews with all their requirements.
The Ritsers once suffered from true terror for their lives. They were threatened with a real danger, which the peasant family might not have realized as well as the Jews did.
Germans came into the village, seeking and requisitioning wood from the peasants. They searched everywhere. They've come inside the barn, where the Ritsers are hiding. They try to open the trapdoor in the ceiling that leads into the loft, but for some reason it's not opening easily. The German doesn't feel like struggling with a stupid door. If it doesn't openwell, let it be. Is there a shortage of wood in the village or elsewhere? And he leaves the site. It was touch and go whether the door would open, and then… then the Germans would be in the loft. If they had found Jews rather than wood, they wouldn't have minded…
We walk around the barn, touching the damp, sticky hay, looking at every corner, at the trapdoor that the German hadn't been able to open, and through which the two peasant girls had brought food daily to the concealed Ritsers.
No one, except for the concealed family itself, the peasant woman, and her two daughters, knew about the hideout. Even Józef, Ludwikowa's son, who had returned home after escaping from German prisoner-of-war camp, didn't know at first about the Jews hiding in the barn.
At first, the three women took good care that Józef should not find out, as they did not know what he had become involved with; in other words, whether he had become infected with the Nazi hatred of Jews during the time he had been in Germany. However, they could not keep this up for long, especially as he became increasingly curious about the amount of food that was constantly disappearing from the house. They had no choice but to tell him. However, their fear proved unfounded. As soon as Józef heard about the concealed Jews, he went up to the loft and promised them that their situation would not last long; the schwabs would soon leave, and they would be freed from their fear and their hiding place.
And, indeed, it did not last long, as Józef had promised. A few days later,
the first Soviet units arrived in the area. More than ever, the hiding Jews crowded around the opening in the loft; now, it filled with good news of the coming liberation.
But Ludwikowa continued to come to their trapdoor, murmuring muted entreaties into the dark space: Berku, cynku moj, don't go down yet. Listen to me. Stay there a few more days, until things settle down and security is stronger. You never know if there are still schwabs in the vicinity. We will let you know when to come down.
In a day or two, the Germans left the area, and the hidden Ritsers came down from the loft - - -
Now we're walking around with the rescuers and the rescued, looking thankfully at the friendly people, the hospitable barn, the innocent animals chewing their cuds with their eyes wide open, just as always. They cannot imagine that in case of the slightest setback God forbid they, along with the entire household, would have gone up in flames.
Itshe, Berl Ritser's eighteen-year-old son, is busy with his photographic equipment, to create an image commemorating our visit. He and pretty Wanda search for secluded spots behind the bushes suitable for this purpose, and perhaps for other purposes as well. Itshe is busy with his apparatus, and Wanda picks flowers.
to take with us. They are also busy with each other, whispering behind the bushes about something we cannot make out. The breeze that reaches them sends us hints; but in any case, it is not hard to guess.
See, Grisha Zaydenvar says half-jokingly to Berl Ritser, pointing to the bushes with a wink, we still have a chance at some joy. Would you consider marrying?
Do I have nothing better to do? is Berl's disdainful response.
I am strangely disturbed by this response, and feel that the gods would like to intervene in our human connection. Oh, how the gods have incited human discord!
Who know how long I would have remained in this state of disturbance, if pretty Wanda had not come up with her lovely bouquet before we parted. I feel that her beautiful bouquet as well as her beautiful smile can bridge the gap between people that the gods have created, as well as the gap between her and Itshe.
The family sees us out to the gate, and we say our farewells. I ask for the flower bouquet to be given to Grisha Zaydenvar, the partisan. It is thanks to him that we can now walk freely on Polish paths. Let him have it; none of us may be as worthy of it.
|On the gallows: ten Jews with yellow patches on their backs|
by Tslava Tsimmerman Ginzburg, Givat Rambam
Translated by Tina Lunson
Slava Zimmerman Ginzburg, Givat Rambam, Israel. Returned to Poland from Russia after the war, and went back to Kurov. There a Christian who had accompanied the transport of Kurov Jews to the Sobibor extermination camp in 1942, told her a few details.
When they left the town and passed through the Jewish cemetery a few Jews, including cantor Yosske Ackerman and Shlomo Tevel (Tuvye) Wachenhaser, refused to go any further and walked out of their places in the line. The Germans shot them on the spot. After that they shot those who were walking shakily.
All the other Jews were packed into sealed railway trucks at Nalentchov. The trucks had a layer of quicklime on the floor and almost all were choked. That same night they were burned at Sobibor.
* * *
This was related by Konter, a peasant from Brozvigatsh, who was hired by the remaining Jews of Kurow to follow the departing transport and find out what happened to them. I heard this from him in 1945, when I returned to Kurow from Russia. Ts.Ts. G.
On the last day of peysakh, 1942, at twelve noon, the small ghetto was stirred up by a wild, previously unknown alarm. All the Jews of the ghetto appeared out on the street. A group of armed S.S. men had called together the unfortunate residents of the Kurow ghetto and announced to them:
In half an hour from now you will be transferred to Nalentshov for work. The sick, old and children will ride in wagons, which have already been prepared. We are also humans, and understand that those categories of people cannot walk. May the world not think that we only treat you badly. We are doing this in order that you can earn more and live better. You may take with you jewelry, foreign currency, fur coats, linens, and food for 24 hours. Whoever does not submit
to this resolution, or runs away, will be shot on the spot.
The gathered people listened to the order in silence and in an eveofdeath mood. They quickly took their last paltry possessions, their old and ill and arranged themselves in rows of five. They did not even appear to see how Germans tore into their houses, wildly tossing things around, searching and laying waste yet another time as they went through the poor possessions.
In the first row were the eminent Jews with their sons, daughters and wives. There were not any wagons. Everyone was exhausted, the children were terrified, clinging to their mothers. Arriving at the cemetery Yoske Akerman (the cantor) and Shlyeme Tevel Vakhenhazer left the line and declared that they were prepared to die.
A shot and they dragged the dead bodies off to the side. A little further along two young and beautiful women (Fradl Levin, Naftali Sherer's daughter, and another whose name is not known) also left the line, but their fate was the same. Silently the procession went further. Even further
along Bashe Bubis fell: she was leading her sick father who could not walk fast and a German noticed that her child was crying one shot and it was over.
By then everyone understood that this was their last road.
When they were tired and weary they finally arrived at Konskovalye, where they were all confined in a barn.
The Christian who was following in order to ransom Mekhl and Sheyndl Teneboym (Zlate's) brought them some bread and water. Reviving a little, some began to believe that they were going to work. A ray of hope shone in their hearts again for a moment.
But when the first rays of daylight illuminated the earth, they were driven further on along the way to Nalentshov. Again they heard shooting, again dead bodies, and again the herd was driven, without food, without rest. Sweat mixed with dust ran down their exhausted bodies. Dovid Niderberg fell. He
knew that an independent movement meant death, but his aching feet could not go further.
And when they finally reached Nalentshov, prepared wagons of quicklime awaited them. The Jews were left standing. Now they understood that they had been made a mockery of and been nastily fooled. A quiet murmuring went through the crowd. Children started to cry. My father and a few other Jews began to recite the vidui [last confession]. Everyone began whispering the vidui. The Germans beat them with clubs and pushed them into the wagons. When the procession began to move the air was split with a wild, strange and frightful scream of woe.
The procession arrived at Sobibor at night with its load of dead people.
Their bodies were burned that same night. Long after that the air was thick with the smell of burned human bodies. The residents of the surrounding villages saw the black smoke for a long time. It got quiet, the air returned to normal, and the peasant went back to Kurow in his wagon.
Back row from right: Yekhiel Ayzman, Leybish Shtern, his wife Kine (Tsimerman), Avrom Tsimerman, Tslava Tsimerman (Yisroel)
Front row from right: Elke AyzmanShtern, Frandl Kines (Shtern), Shleyme Nakhman Tsimerman and his wife
Besides Frandel who died in Erets Yisroel, and Malka who is alive, all were killed
by Simkhe Klaperman, Paris
Translated by Tina Lunson
Simkha Klapperman, Paris. On the 29th of June, 1942, he reached the notorious camp of Auschwitz Oswiecim, Poland from France. Some of the Jews who arrived that day were immediately selected for death. As the crematorium was not yet quite ready, they were flung into trenches, petrol was poured over them, and they were burned. The Germans used to have fun with the remaining handful in the following fashion: they would press the handle of the spade which the prisoner was using against his neck and hold it until he choked.
The minimal punishment was flogging. The person sentenced to the flogging had to count the number of blows. The heads of some unlucky people used to be forced into a pail of water and held there until they choked under the water.
If anybody did not hear his number at the roll call, and failed to answer, he was shot on the spot.
When the Red Army approached the camp some of the prisoners were driven to other places from Auschwitz. They marched on foot for fourteen days without eating or drinking. If they bent down while marching, in order to tie up their shoelaces, they were shot on the spot. At Mauthausen camp they were kept out in the snow for several days. Many of them froze to death.
Klaperman's head was split open with an iron bar by a German. When the wound was dressed, a second German hit him with another iron bar over the bandaged wound.
During the very worst moments, at the verge of death, Simkha Klapperman continued to hope and told himself: And still we shall outlive them, we shall see them deep in the earth!
The 14th of May, 1941, being located in France, I was summoned to Camp Fitivie not far from Paris, where I had been for thirteen months. On the 25th of June 1942 I was deported from there, along with another few thousand other Jews, to Auschwitz.
We were packed into completely closed commercial train cars in unhuman conditions. Two hundred were packed into a car where at the most about 30 people
could fit. Thus we were jammed together for four days and nights, without light, without water and without air. Before departure they announced that if one of us were missing all would be shot.
We arrived in Auschwitz on the 29th of June. While the train was still moving very slowly, before stopping, waiting S.S. men were beating us and hitting us with clubs over the head.
I descended from the car like everyone else, beaten, bloodied, battered.
We were all taken into the camp and lay outdoors for three days and nights, under the open sky. The selections began on the third day. A large number from our transport, young and old, were taken straight to death. Since the crematorium was not ready, they simply threw the people into pits and set fire to them with petrol and burned them. Among those who remained, meanwhile, there was a fresh selection every eighth day, and anyone on whom the S.S. murderer's eye fell was designated for death.
From 3 in the morning until the night I had to perform the most difficult work, like carrying sacks of cement and heavy iron rails. And doing that I had to work fast, at a run, and the canes kept raining on our heads. If ever anyone could not keep up and fell down he was set upon by the S.S. dogs, or strangled with the handle of a spade which two persecutors pressed against his neck and suffocated until the unfortunate one expired.
Returning from work we had to carry the dead on our shoulders back to the crematorium. And people died at every step and turn, and with the most refined sadistic methods, and whenever it pleased the murderers to kill. And when did it not please them? Almost every punishment ended in death. The chief punishment was always blows. During that the beaten one himself had to count each blow. Often the murderer would stick the unfortunate's head in a pail of water so that he would drown. And that is how he died.
|Simkhe Klaperman's father (killed)|
Once, coming back that way after such a hard day of labor we heard a whistle, signaling that we must go to the bath. This was during a freeze of 28 degrees. One had to undress and stand naked for two hours,
waiting. We were told that the bath was still closed. When the gate finally opened we thousands of people were driven into the bath accompanied by murderers with rubber truncheons. After five or six minutes under the hot water Nazi bandits with sticks came in and drove us out while screaming Everybody out!
As we came out we again had to stand naked for two hours in the cold and afterwards they assembled us in rows of five and we had to march back.
When we arrived at our barracks we did not have our clothing or our blankets because everything had been turned over for disinfection. So we lay there the whole night naked and the barrackelder and kapos had opened the end windows in order to air the place out.
At three in the morning they chased us outdoors and they brought wagons with our packages of clothing. They called out each person by number and whoever missed hearing his was killed on the spot.
Once the Soviet Army was in the Krakow area and nearing Auschwitz, we were sent out of the camp, on 18 January. We were walking for 14 days and nights without food or anything to drink. Along the entire way lay the bodies of our tortured and fallen comrades, of those who could not bear up and whose strength failed and those who were shot for the slightest infraction like bending over to tie a lace of a shoe and such.
|Simkhe Klaperman's wife with their little daughter. Thinking that her husband was dead she committed suicide along with the child, by gas, in her home.|
When we arrived at the Mathausen camp they did not allow us into barracks, but we had to lie in the snow for several days and nights. People froze to death. Selections began again among our exhausted prisoners: some for death and some for the temporary life of suffering and pain.
Two weeks before the liberation a German barrackelder split my head open with a piece of iron. I was taken to the sick bay and a doctor, a Russian, a deportee, operated and saved me from death. Then with the implanted clamps and a bandaged head I soon off to work again, because if I did not work the Nazi murderers would send me to death. The S.S. bandit was pleased to see me with a bandaged head and amused himself by tapping on it with his stick, with great pleasure. The clamps fell out and my head was opened once again, blood ran out of me and I had to run off to work like that. Arriving back at the barrack after work the doctor told me that he could not operate again. He bandaged my head up again. And although I was not fit to go back to work again, he advised me to go work rather than stay with him because I would be finished soon anyway. I went to work with my last strength and gradually my head healed, literally through miracles.
At around the same time, standing on line for a little watery soup, the barrack elder approached me and gave me a hard punch in the head with his elbow. Seeing that I did not fall over from his punch and that I could stay up on my feet, he started to really punish me and called for his German kapo to come help him. That guy knocked me to the ground, stomped on my stomach with his feet and choked my
throat. After that he beat me with a rod on the head and face. I was left lying unconscious and when the murderers went away, my friends took me to the wash station and washed the blood off me under the faucets. When I came to my first words to my fellowsufferers were They can go to hell, we will outlive them because we must live!
And that is how I outlived them.
|Simkhe Klaperman after returning home from Oswiecim|
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