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[Page 110]

The Martyrdom
of the Last Ostrovtser Rebi

by A.R.

Translated by Yechezkel Anis

Donated by the Rappaport family

When the Second World War broke out, Rabbi Yechezkel happened to have been in Warsaw, the capital. There he underwent terrible days of heavy bombing, of hunger and of want. In the summer of 1940, his followers were finally able to transport him to Ostrovtze in a vehicle marked “First Aid.” The Rebbe was afraid to live in his own house, so he went to live with his first-born, the young Rabbi Yekele.

In spite of the great risk taken by devout Jews by appearing publicly with their beards and ear locks, many Chassidim would gather in the Rebbe's apartment and on the Sabbath he would set a table for them and share words of Torah. Still, one could see how anguished he was at not being able to serve Hashem freely and in a loud voice, as he was accustomed to in the past, out of fear that he'd be heard outside.

The Rebbe refused to maintain any contact whatsoever with the Judenrat [local Jewish council appointed by the Germans]. Virtually all the members of the Judenrat in Ostrovtze were common, untutored Jews, but in spite of this they honored the Rebbe and provided him with a salary, just as before. The salary nevertheless was insufficient insofar as his needs increased. This was because his sons and their families had fled from their hometowns due to the Nazi oppressor and joined their father in Ostrovtze. The Rebbe's close followers tried to help him as best they could, but it was still insufficient. Our master, who was used to providing generously, began to live a life of frugality and hardship.

The horrible tidings that reached him from every direction oppressed his spirit.

[Page 111]

He began fasting and spending more time in prayer. One could see how suddenly he had aged. Hardly ever leaving his home, he spent his days and nights in study and prayer and in weeping over the calamity of his people.

As the year 5702 [1942] approached, the situation for the Jews got worse from day to day. His close confidants refrained from telling him the bitterest truths so as not to add to his suffering. A few months before the “resettlement” of Ostrovtze's Jews, some of them tried to obtain work certificates so as to avoid the expulsion, which they knew meant extermination.

I had a place working at the Hermann Goering factory. On the seventh day of Chol HaMoed Succos 5703 [should be the third day, 1942], before leaving for work, I went to see the Rebbe, as I lived in his neighborhood. When he saw me in my weekday garb, he sighed heavily and said, “What, are you going to work? How could that be? Today is the ushpizin [heavenly “visit” to the Succah] of your namesake, Aharon! It is also the yahrtzeit of your ancestor, the Holy Jew [R. Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowitz 1766-1813]. It's better that you should stay here with me.” Even though I feared losing my job, I listened to the Rebbe and stayed with him that day in his house.

The terrible days of the expulsion were approaching. The Rebbe and his family members, lacking work certificates, hid in the cellar. Two days after the expulsion, on the first day of the month of Mar-Cheshvan 5703 [1942], the Jewish police removed the Rebbe and his family to Judenrat platz, where, supposedly, work certificates were to be distributed to the so-called illegal Jews. That is how the wicked Nazis managed to trick many Jews into leaving their hiding places so that they could subsequently expel them.

Through a fortunate circumstance, the Jewish police were able to rescue the Rebbe and his two sons, Reb Elimelech of Nasielsk and Reb Avraham Yitzchak of Mondziow, and to hide them from the Germans' sight until the crisis passed. The Rebbe's first-born, Reb Yekele, already had a work place in Bodzechow, nearby to Ostrovtze. His remaining two sons also found themselves work places there and that's how they were all saved at the time from the expulsion.

My work place was outside the ghetto, but I still managed to enter it by paying a large sum of money to the Jewish thugs who governed it. The first visit I paid was to the Rebbe's house. I was shocked to see our master, Reb Yechezkel, shorn of his beard and ear locks and wrapped in a simple cloak over his rabbinic satin frock. A Polish cap sat upon his head, covering his yarmulke. His first words were “Aharon! Can you see what I look like?”

Since I had not donned tefillin in many days, the Rebbe handed me his tallis and tefillin. I stood up to pray a short prayer. The Ukrainian police waited for me outside so as to return me to the factory. As I stood there praying the Shmoneh Esreh, I heard the Rebbe moaning behind me, “Woe is me! In spite of all of this, they continue to pray.” I quickly concluded my prayer and began to take leave of the Rebbe. He asked me why I didn't don the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam [an additional set of tefillin donned by the particularly devout]. I told him that it was too burdensome to don two sets of tefillin at my work place. He dejectedly answered me, “How is Rabbeinu Tam to blame, nebich [a pity]?”

Some time later, I managed once again to enter the ghetto. Only a small number of Jews were left, including a number of “illegals,” that is, those without work certificates. The Jewish police provided the Rebbe with a work certificate, but he just hid in the attic and continued to study and pray. I sought him out and found him. He had with him his tallis and tefillin and a small Shas [Talmud] published by Chorev. He launched into a Torah discussion surrounding the topic of yiush shelo m'daas [despair without knowledge]. I asked the age-old question: “Is this the reward for adhering to the Torah?” The Rebbe answered me as follows, “Any man could comprehend the mind of another, but no mortal could comprehend the ways of G-d.” I was full of bitterness and refrained from asking anything else.

I couldn't bear seeing the Rebbe in his state of suffering and solitude, as he dwelled alone in that forsaken and smoky attic. I went to the Jewish police to ask that they arrange for him a small apartment, but due to the religious laxness that had taken hold in the ghetto, many were afraid to admit the Rebbe into their quarters lest he be critical of their violating the Sabbath and other laws. When I informed the Rebbe of this concern, he told me that he would promise not to bother anyone. All he desired was a small corner with a bed of any kind on which he could lay and look into his small Shas…that was all. However, being as I knew that the Rebbe's spirit would be broken if he had to witness religious laxity around him, I exerted great effort and arranged for him a small room of his own. Indeed, he was happy to have found this solution and from time to time I would prepare some food for him.

While in the Rebbe's company, I discovered that he wanted to believe that the Jews who had been expelled were still living and had not gone up in the smoke of the crematoria. He couldn't reconcile himself to the idea of such a great tragedy befalling his brethren. I am reminded of one particular detail during that time: The grandson of the Gerer Rebbe (son of his son-in-law, R. Yitzchak Meir Alter) was in the ghetto and came in to see Reb Yechezkel. The Rebbe ordered me to feed him and said, “Perhaps if I have mercy on the Gerer Rebbe's grandson, others will have mercy on my grandsons wherever they are.”

Here's another detail as proof of this [belief in family having survived]. On the eve of Chanukah 5707 [should be 5703= 1942], the Rebbe made an effort to resume his spiritual duties, asking me to present him with a pitka [a supplicatory “note” with one's name, requesting the Rebbe's blessing]. I handed him a note upon which my name alone was written, since I already knew at the time that I had lost all of my family. That is why I entreated him on my behalf alone. The Rebbe asked me, “Why didn't you write down the names of all your family? Add each and every one of them along with the words 'who is in captivity.'” Indeed, the thoughts of the wise cannot be understood at a time of ruin!

During Chanukah of 5707 [should be 5703=1942], many fled to Sandomierz. The Rebbe implored me to accompany him there, where we would learn Torah and forget some of our misfortunes. I escorted the Rebbe and his surviving sons

[Page 112]

as they left the Ostrovtze ghetto. It was my intention to join them afterward, but then, two days later, I heard that the murderers there had hatched a new extermination plot and so I did not go there.

On Wednesday, the 8th of Teves 5707 [should be 5703=1943], the holy Tzaddik, Reb Yechezkel ob”m, the first heir to the Ostrovtzer dynasty, was gathered [to his people]. Two days later I received a message from his two sons concerning the great loss, which they signed, “We are left to moan.”

Approximately one month later, the entire [Jewish] community of Sandomierz was liquidated [on the 7th of Shevat]. The local Jews were sent to Treblinka, among them our master's three sons: Reb Yekele, the young rabbi of Ostrovtze; Reb Elimelech of Nasielsk; and Reb Avraham Yitzchak of Mondziow. May G-d avenge their blood!

It is incumbent upon us, the surviving people of Ostrovtze, to commemorate the following:

Our Rabbi, the holy gaon, Reb Yechezkel, AB”D and Admor of Ostrovtze.
His first-born son, the young Reb Yekele of Ostrovtze
His son, Reb Elimelech of Nasielsk
His son, Reb Avraham Yitzchak, rabbi of Mondziow
His son, Reb Chaim
His son, Reb Naftali
His son, the youth Elazar
His son, the youth Menachem Mendel
Their daughter, Devorah
And their mother, the Rebbetzin Baila Mirel

May G-d avenge their blood!

Delivered for print by A.R. [ In 2022, it was learned from the Rappaport family that the abbreviation A.R. was Aron Rappaport who wrote this article ]

 


[Page 116]

The Martyrdom of the Last Ostrovtser Rebi

by Aron Tsaytlin

Translated by Tina Lunson

The tenth of Tevet is the yortsayt for a Rebi who on that day was killed in kodesh ha'shem in Hitler's Poland.

It is the Rebi Rov Yekhezkel may God avenge his blood, the son and heir of the old Ostrovtser Rebi.

The yortsayt of the Rebi falls on the tenth of Tevet and also of another twenty of his khasidim, who were murdered on the same day.

I know this from a document, from a letter, that I have in my possession and which I publish here. The letter was sent to me some time ago by a Jew from Tsoyzmir (Sandomiezsh) who saved himself and has lived the last years in Canada – Mr. Yeshaye Zoberman.

Here is his shocking letter, which depicts the martyrdom of the Rebi and of a Jewish witness:

“After the slaughter in Ostrovtse there were only about fifteen hundred Jews left, who worked in a factory six kilometers from town, in Bodzshekhov. The Ostrovtser Rebi, Rov Yekhezkel, was hidden among those remaining. The Gestapo suddenly raided the whole work site, searched for the Rebi but did not find him. It was decided to take the Rebi to Tsoyzmir. At that time there was a second ghetto in Tsoyzmir – the first had already been eradicated. The German authorities published a so-called ironclad decree to all the Jews hiding in forests and fields, in attics and cellars, that if they returned voluntarily to Tsoyzmir nothing would happen to them and they would get work, bread and an apartment. The Germans spread the rumor that those who returned would survive the war. Thousands of Jews who had been in hiding were drawn to Tsoyzmir from all directions. Had they believed the Nazi persecutors? No. But there was no alternative. They were weary to death, terribly tortured by hunger. The winter had been a frightfully cold one – there was no more strength for suffering.

But the Tsoyzmir ghetto was then ruled by the Nazi murderer Lesher. He made the ghetto assemble twice a day for him to “give attention” and he recounted to see whether all the ghetto-folk were there. When someone was sick, pregnant and so on, they went to their home and shot them on the spot. A hope nonetheless glimmered in Jewish hearts that they might somehow outlive the murderers.

It was under such circumstances that they brought the Rebi to Tsoyzmir. His entire head was bandaged up so that his beard was not visible. The Rebi was smuggled into the ghetto for a hefty fee, set up in a closed house where the entrance was walled up, and they served him and brought in food through a hole in the floor.

This was in the second half of Kislev.

Two weeks later the Gestapo chief Braun came to the ghetto. Tsoyzmir ghetto was under his command. He went into the Jewish community office and demanded that they present the Ostrovtser Rebi within one hour. When they told him that the Rebi was not in the ghetto he let it be known that if they did not present the Rebi to him within the hour, he would order that two hundred Jews with their wives and children be burned alive in the shul.

The leaders communicated with the Rebi. The Rebi told them to take him to the Gestapo chief. The Rebi did not answer the murderer's questions. The Gestapo chief photographed him several times in various positions. After that he ordered that the community leaders take the Rebi under their responsibility until tomorrow at nine in the morning when he, Braun, would come for him. Should it happen that the Rebi fled he would carry out his “coercion”: he would burn two hundred Jews.

In the community office where the Rebi was sitting, they began gathering Jews and reciting psalms. The Rebi immersed himself in the mikve that was in the ghetto. He chopped through the ice and immersed himself.

No Jew in the Tsoyzmir ghetto slept the entire night. All were reciting psalms.

Since it was almost day (it was the tenth of Tevet) the Rebi dressed in a white kitel, prayed, recited slikhes and al kheyt – the whole ghetto wept together.

At exactly nine o'clock the Gestapo murderer showed up, accompanied by Nazi gendarmes. Twenty Jews appealed to the persecutor with a request: they would volunteer to give their lives for the Rebi's. Braun laughed; very well, he would carry out their request. He would shoot all of them, but along with the Rebi. And he ordered the gendarmes to arrest the twenty Jews. Then they told them to position the Rebi in the shul courtyard against the wall. When he pointed his revolver at the Rebi the Rebi called out loud and fast, “Shema Yisroel, d'alkeynu, d'akhod”. Six bullets the Nazi bandit shot into the holy man. A peasant wagon had already been prepared. They laid the martyr in the wagon and ordered it be driven to the cemetery. The twenty arrested Jews had to dig a large common grave for themselves in barely an hour. They were shot soon after. This happened on the tenth of Tevet sav-shin-giml (13 December 1942).”

 

ost117.jpg
The dedication of the memorial at the grave of Rov Yekhezkel may God avenge his blood

 

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