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[Page 222]

A Prayer by the Ark of Ashes

Yitzhak Gutterman

Translated by Meir Livneh

As we draw near the ark of ashes our skin blazes anew. Again we feel the burns of the flaring bodies, the bodies of our boys and girls, our children and elderly.

Indeed, thirty years have passed since the gas crematoria cooled off, but in our hearts the fire begins to burn again. It is set anew with each reminder of those flames, upon every touch with remnants of that fire, with every look at whatever sign.

Of the six million Jews, only few arks of ashes remain. The rest scattered to four winds, swallowed by the earth – and gone.

Those arks were taken to many places and one of them was brought to burial in Israel. Immediately after the destruction I wandered over many towns and cities in Poland, looking for Jews, or any sign of their existence.

I only found cities empty of Jews and in the cemeteries I found no sign of their graves. In many places I saw tombstones dated before the destruction, which had been uprooted and used as cobblestones. The destruction even touched those who passed away before the Holocaust.

Only in the cemetery of Lodz did I find a few new tombstones. Those were small, narrow, with right-angle edges at the top, like shoulders of a decapitated man. The white tombstones had many names engraved on them, line after line, like the Ten Commandments on the Tables. On the stone tablets of the dead were engraved – as though wrapping them – the names of relatives who perished and no one knows when and how. Only a few names of some of the family members found together a common home on the tombstone.

Where do their bones rest, the Jews who were killed slaughtered – they have no address!

When the ashes sense our approach they are set on fire anew and our bodies begin to burn and blaze again. Our souls are horrified by their death.

In that ark we see the renascence of six million faces, flames spouting from their eyes, from their open mouths, choking from fire and smoke, we hear millions of cries: Forget us not! Let us be remembered!

And we the living reply and tell them “We remember…!”

We remember, for it every crumb of these ashes lies a Jewish soul; every crumb is a Jew who was burnt. We remember that every crumb is a Jewish home with its neighbors, that every crumb is a street whose residents are Jews.

We remember that a few crumbs of ashes in this ark are a city of Jews who were burnt. We remember, that every crumb of the ashes is a “Cheider” with children, learning the Aleph Bet, the Pentateuch and Rashi. Every crumb is a school, where pupils studied Hebrew culture and literature.

We remember, that Janusz Korczak's orphanage and the “Beith Yaakov” school became a heap of rabble and ashes, that may well be inside this ark. Every crumb of these ashes is a class of the “Zisha” school.

And all of us standing here, gathered around them, couldn't say our traditional words that we are here to call upon the graves of our fathers. Coming to the “graves of our fathers” – means to visit the graves of our parents, and here we stand by the graves of children and infants. Each one of us is an ORPHAN from that crumb of the ashes. Here grandfather bereaves his grandchild and sister mourns her very own.

The Jew, who became an Ohis his own child on the gallows, is still alive. There are still alive Jewish mothers, whose daughters perished, not having succumbed to the Oppressors, and who sacrificed their lives in martyrdom – Kiddush Hashem.

All of us, standing here today gathered around, you, are ORPHANS, crumbs of the ashes. Your murderer “inherited” your property, the flames “inherited” your strength and the very essence of life; we are the inheritors of your pain and anguish, groans and cries.

This inheritance is cherished in the very depths of our hearts and souls.

And when silence was cast and eoverwrought, a voice of a choir, shared by a large congregation, resounded: We, the crumbs, compressed in this ark of ashes, which were once human beings, blood still rushing through our veins, our hearts still beating, our lungs still breathing and our eyes still able to see – we were spread in many lands.

We shall lift like dust to the sky, knock on His doors and rise. We shall demand our strength, which was robbed from us, when our souls departed. We shall hand down the strength and revive in and Your children – Our children – forever and ever.

And the last whisper of the living was: Your anguish and pain, your groans and cries, cherished in our hearts and in the blood in our veins, are a sign and testimony, that this will be passed on to us – and be guarded from now to eternity, for our sake and yours – in holy memory.

[Page 228]

The Beginning of the Destruction and Holocaust

Avigdori (Tzuntakovski) Gezel

Translated by H.

World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, which that year fell on a Friday. We had heard earlier that the Nazis drove many Jews out of Germany by way of Zvonshin. Already on that first day of the war, we heard radio reports that German troops were advancing with giant steps into the interior of Poland and this, despite the boasting of Polish army headquarters, as though they were in fact delaying the invasion. The cities of Poland and her extended territories of Pomernia (“The Corridor”) fell into the hands of the conqueror. The Polish Government, headed by Marshall Ridge Shmigili, Bak, and others, was ill prepared for war, not having called up the army, or having equipped it with appropriate weapons. Hopes were pinned on agreements made with Britain and France, and the anticipation was that salvation would come from these quarters. It should be noted that the joint chief of staff of Poland, declared, “not even a button from our coats will we give them!”… What actually happened, of course, is quite different…

Being familiar with the Nurenberg Laws, which the Nazis began implementing in Germany, Polish Jewry was seized with fear and trembling. Already on the first day of the war, the Jews of Polish Pomernia left their possessions behind and streamed southward with their families. Many refugees arrived in our town, and were hosted in Jewish homes and public facilities belonging to the Jewish community. Information about the advances of German troops into Poland darkened our spirits. We watched the sorties of the German warplanes (“Messerschmitts”), with the swastikas on the fuselage, bombing and firing on units of the retreating Polish army.

The retreat was chaotic: by foot, in carts with canons, harnessed to horses, and heading to the opposite side of the Wisla River. I remember clearly shooting posts that were set up on the roof of our house at 9 Dakarta Square to fire at overhead planes. The building was one story, oblong, large, and the roof was tin. The hope was that perhaps the Wisla River would be a blockade for the invading German army. Therefore, many young men and older men began following the path of the Polish army to the other side of the Wisla. I, and several of my relatives and friends did the same. Early in the morning on Monday, September 4, 1939, we packed knapsacks with provisions and essential clothing and set out on foot in the direction of Wloclawek.

The road was jammed with retreating Polish soldiers and their ammunition, with peasant and their carts filled with cattle and other possessions – and all hurried to cross the bridge over the Wisla in Wloclawek. That same afternoon, the German blew up the bridge from the air, killing everyone who was crossing it. According to rumors, in the bombing, two residents of our city were killed: Yitzchak Varshavski of blessed memory (whose two brothers Moshe and Dovid live in Israel) and Meir Florenz of blessed memory (whose sister Tula is in Israel). My relatives, friends, and I crossed the bridge before the bombing, and reached a town not too far from Wloclawek called Kobl-Koivsky. My aunt Hinda Elberg of blessed memory, the sister of my mother, of blessed memory, lived there. I remained in Kobl about two weeks. On the morning of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the German army entered Kobl and Warsaw and conquered the town. Before that, we had seen Polish soldiers escaping in panic in the direction of Warsaw. We heard the elite Polish officers had deserted the front and left the army without orderly command.

Among the soldiers and fighters were many Jews, whose intention it was to halt the advance of the German blitz. The soldiers fought against the Germans with antiquated artillery and the cavalry fought heroically against the invaders' tanks – against hope. When I became aware that all was lost and that we were already under the German yoke, I decided to return home to my family. On that day, September 15, 1939, the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I set out for home.

As I approached Wloclawek, I encountered on the edge of the road a few Jewish women, who, like me, had fled; and together we marched on the road. Suddenly German Wermacht soldiers appeared on bicycles and asked where we were going. After we explained our intention, they checked out knapsacks and allowed us to continue on our way.

At around dusk, we arrived in Wloclawek. One of the girls, who lived in the town, gave us accommodations with her family for the night. The next morning, which was the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I wanted to walk in the direction of my town, but as I have described, the bridge was destroyed and I needed permission (authorization) from the German command to cross the river in some sort of boat. Therefore I went to the German officer in charge and asked him to issue me a permit for this. He asked me what my reasons were for wanting to go, and I explained to him that the Polish authorities had ordered us to follow the army by foot, and thus we had come there. Because our house was situated on the other side of the Wisla, we wanted to cross it and go home. The officer wrote me a permit saying, “If you find a sailing vessel you are authorized to use it to cross over to the other side of the river.” When I walked out with the desired permit and made my way to the banks of the Wisla, I saw convoys of farm wagons harnessed to horses and loaded with animals.

There were also many Jews from our town and surrounding ones. Numerous ferries and local fishing boats were anchored on the shore. For a sum of one zloty per person, we were taken to the opposite side of the river. The entire width of the river was filled with boats and barges. I was perhaps among the first to reach the other side, where German Wermacht military guards were already stationed. A German officer asked that someone from among those who had arrived - who understood German and Polish – serve as a translator between the military guard and the people who were arriving. When nobody volunteered, I did, thinking that getting the translating done would quicken our progress.

The Germans searched our rucksacks (backpacks) and removed every item of value. They helped themselves to livestock and grains belonging to the peasants. Throughout the confiscation and searches, the Germans said insulting and hateful things about the Polish Jews, and I was obliged to translate word for word, as there were some Germans there who understood Polish. Following the searches and plunder, they sent this looted group on its way. I remember the changing of the guard.

Finally, I mustered courage and said to the German officer: “If not for this delay in which you've held me for four hours, I would have been home already.” The German officer to whom I complained ordered the driver of the truck of the outgoing guard to take me in the direction of their camp, which was in Bork, approximately 3-4 kilometers from our town. Since I was traveling in a military truck at about 20 kilometers per hour, I was among the first of the men who returned to the town. As I passed Gdansk Street in the early afternoon, I spotted some young Jewish girls taking a walk, who besieged me with questions concerning their relatives and dear ones. By then, many other Jews began returning from the other side of the river.

That same evening, the night after Rosh Hashanah, I was invited by Mr. Berger, the barber, who was also a well-known trumpet player in the orchestra of the firebrigade and the “Maccabi” Orchestra, to appear at police headquarters (in City Hall), located near our house. When I reported there, I was told Mr. Berger was the leader of the Jewish militia in our town and that he had appointed me his deputy. Our job was to provide primarily a night watch for the Jewish population and their possessions to guard the Jewish streets.

Our weapons were clubs. We young men patrolled in groups, with sticks in our hands, and guarded Jewish property and lives. There already was no Polish police as those in the know had run away and were in hiding. After two weeks, this Jewish militia was abruptly disbanded: As I was sitting at police headquarters, suddenly the Gestapo appeared, wearing black uniforms with skull bones decorating their helmets and shoulders and we were thrown out with blows and insults. On that day, notices appeared on all public bulletin boards and on walls of buildings in German and in Polish announcing that “by the authority of the German military commander, and signed by the governing General Von Brauchitz” (May his memory be obliterated!), all Jewish rights were cancelled, and henceforth their lives and property were unprotected (“hefker”).

Until the arrival of the Gestapo, the Jewish community had somehow got on with life, Jewish shops were open, and merchandise was sold to German soldiers, who paid as they wished with their “pennings”.

The very day the Gestapo and SS forces arrived in the city, persecutions and pogroms against the Jews began. A hunt was on for the men, who were forced to perform all manner of humiliating work, devoid of purpose or use and solely intended to torture and humiliate. Among the types of work were raising water from the wells, which was promptly spilled, and transferring heavy stones from place to place, and so forth. While we carried out these duties, they beat us with branches or rifle butts.

Once I was sent to clean out the Gestapo's horse shed, which was located in the former storage space of the “Pashmil” flourmill. Another time, I was forced to help the head butcher in the municipal slaughterhouse. This known hooligan, Vitzki, had spread fear among the Jews even before the Occupation, when he walked the streets of the town clad in his black riding breeches with black polished boots. I helped in the slaughter of pigs, stripping their skin and removing hair from the skins. All this, without any remuneration or reward, from early in the morning until nightfall. This work I did several days, and then I was called to work in the kitchen of the Gestapo, which was housed in the “Seimach” Building. There the work was somewhat easier, as the cook, who was a German soldier from the “heimwar” confessed to me that he hated the Nazis, that he was a socialist from Berlin, and as I have said, he treated me in a humane way and sometimes gave me a bit of food to take home.

The first murder in the city that I was aware of, was that of the young Torah prodigy Dziganski, who had lived on Todonska Street, in the area of the Spigelman flourmill. The reason for the murder was never known. With all the endless troubles and humiliations, life in the city flowed with less intensity as we were gripped with inertia. Everyone hoped that the troubles would be over when they heard that the English and French had joined the war against the Germans; but this was a false hope.

The lives of the Jews worsened from day to day. Decree upon decree was the norm. Frequently there were rumors about contributions required of us, extortion of money and valuables that the Germans demanded of the community. The Jewish community was demoralized and stripped of its possessions.

Every few days, the men were taken, by order of the German commander and the local Volksdeutscher, for marches on the outskirts of the town. Mr. Dubizinsky, a Jew who owned the paint shop on Gdansk Street, was appointed to be in charge of the marches. In fulfilling the instructions of the Gestapo officer, he ordered us, the marchers, to remove our hats and put them back on – endlessly - all this as it was raining or snowing. Additionally our outer layer of clothes were taken from us – our coats – with the excuse that these were necessary to keep their own fellow Germans warm. The theft of our coats was mainly the work of the Volksdeutscher. My winter coat was removed by a German fellow, a native of our city named Edeck Yaps, who before the war had contacts with Jewish society, and whose sister worked as a maid in our house.

During the period between Yom Kippur and Succoth, the Germans bombed and burned our magnificent synagogue. It was consumed in flames and destroyed to its foundation. Its ruins “gouged out” our eyes, without our being able to do anything. The blame for this was transferred, despicably, to Mrs. Itzkovitz, of blessed memory, who was the owner of the meal grinding establishment on Gdansk Street, across from the synagogue, and who lived on an alley off Bozinietziena . As the synagogue went up in a blaze of fire, the Germans grabbed a few nearby Jews and forced them to try to put out the fire. The allegedly guilty (accused?) woman was taken for execution and with her a few more Jews, whose names I don't remember.

On a Tuesday towards the end of October 1939, the Germans announced via the “Elders” of the Jewish community, that all males starting from age 14 were required to appear at 8 o'clock in the morning in the November 11 Square, which was the pig market, across from the Protestant Church. There, the Gestapo chief would tell them what their future held. All the men locked to the square, and those who balked at going were forced to do so by their families. Almost a thousand men of the designated age group gathered, as the refugees who were in town were also required to report there.

It was a dark day, cold and rainy, with occasional snow. When I arrived in the square, I saw a small stage had been erected in front of the church. The Germans and soldiers of the Volksdeutsch surrounded us and arranged us in U formation. In lines behind us there were long wagons with ladders, harnessed to horses and military trucks. At 9:30, the Gestapo chief, with military accompaniment, stood up on the stage. He called for the leaders of the community (Va'ad) and for Rabbi Zuckerkorn, of blessed memory, to step out of the line and to stand before him. He began his speech, of which I remember a few sentences:

“Beloved Jews of Lipno and surrounding towns! Cursed sons of the Jewish nation! You caused and brought about this war. Therefore, you must bear its expenses and consequences. The German people need your help, so everyone must remove his coat and shoes and turn them over to us promptly and we will load them on these wagons and trucks. Your lives are worthless, and your property has been hereby confiscated, according to the command of the German military governor. And now, make yourselves scarce, as though the devil is beating your back”.

In response to the demands of the Germans, who attacked them, many of the Jews removed their clothing and shoes. They were beaand shot them indiscriminately. It's impossible to say how many casualties there were in the square. In the mayhem that ensued, some atteto escapto nside streets. I began to run towards the yard of the courthouse on Pilsudski Street when I saw that on each street corner there were clusters of German soldiers, armed with rifles and bayonets, lying in wait for Jews who might attempt to use that street. I escaped via the public garden and reached my house. At home everything was destroyed – the shop had been looted and all the merchandise taken by the German soldiers. Bedding and pillows were ripped apart and feathers floated in every room. The furniture was smashed, in a word – a pogrom and utter destruction had befallen us. Such was the lot of all the Jews in our city on that day. Evidently, calling all the males to the square was a ruse to make the looting and destruction of Jewish property more easily accomplished. That same afternoon and the following day, and for a few more days, we were taken to the Gymnasium Traugut, on Toronska Street, to organize the looted merchandise. As the merchandise and textiles were being sorted, German soldiers would approach us with packages of goods under their arms and ask us about their quality, saying they wanted to send it all off to their families in Germany.

A short time after that, my family was notified that we had to leave our house, located on the corner of Dakarta and Rinkova, within a few hours. All residents of this row of houses on Dakarta and Rinkova received the same order. The Germans proceeded to destroy all the houses as well as their contents, enlarging the square up to Alley No. 20.

My family thus became refugees. Acquaintances of ours, the Sochaczewski family, of blessed memory, whose mother, the daughter of the old Mr. Bornstein, of blessed memory (“Yello Yankel”) and a friend of my mother's, set aside for us a room in their apartment. Convinced that our situation was hopeless and that all efforts were in vain, I decided with a few friends to escape this hell and leave for the Eastern part of Poland, which had been taken by the USSR (under the terms of the Ribentrop-Molotov Treaty). I packed a few things and a bit of money and on November 15, 1939 got on a train heading in the direction of Warsaw. When I arrived in Warsaw, I crossed the Karbedz Bridge, which hadn't been totally destroyed at that point. From there, I continued to the Russian border town, Malkin. At the train station in Malkin, the Nazis were waiting for us. They stripped us, took our money and anything of value and after deadly blows, chased us across the Russian border. At the time, a group of Jewish musicians who were also trying to escape in this direction had been forced to play Jewish melodies in order to muffle the screams of those being beaten.

The border was in the woods. It was autumn and winter was rapidly approaching. The Russians refused to let us cross their border and therefore started erecting barbed wire fences. In this state we sat for several days and nights on the wet, cold ground, without food. The farmers maliciously brought us black bread mixed with sand, and that's what we ate of course, only those who had the money to pay for this “bread.” There were many hungry and despondent among us who gave up and returned to their homes. In the forest, near the border, a few thousand people – men, women and children gathered. We pleaded with the Russian guards to take pity on us and to allow us to cross into Russia, but to no avail.

One day we noticed that a small piece of land near the railroad tracks, on which stood a wooden gate with the Russian emblem, was unfenced, since this was where the train crossed into Russia. In spite of our deep despair, this fact gave us courage and we made a decision to force our way across the border, which is what we did.

At dawn, all the men from the forest gathered near the railroad tracks. We divided ourselves into five rows; in the front a few men, and behind them the women and children; and in the rear again men. We started walking towards the open border. I was among those who went in front of the middle row on the tracks. We lifted the gate, tore it out of the ground, and stormed across. Soviet soldiers, among them Jews, started pursuing us and shouted that we should return – if not, they would shoot. But fear had long ago abandoned us, and we kept moving forward. The soldiers saw they had no effect on us and let us continue.

From the border we walked to the train station in Zarmebi-Kushchelena, and from there by train, without tickets, we traveled to Bialystock, where there were large numbers of refugees.

From Bialystock I made my way to Stanislavov. There, I signed up for work in the unemployment bureau that had been opened by the Russians. I was listed for work in the city of Baku, in the southern Caucuses, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, on the border of Iran. On December 5, 1939, we boarded special trains that took me and all the other refugees who had enlisted for this work. In Kiev, a representative of the agency that was employing us who was in charge of the train, told us we weren't going to Baku after all because we were foreigners because it was a militarily strategic city. He told us our destination was in the Republican of Dagastan in the Northern Caucuses town of Boynkask.

From my new settlement I sent letters and packages home and also received answers. All this stopped in June 1941 when Russia entered the war.

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