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[Page 166]

About the Ruins of Rakov

Zelig Kost

Translation by Shmuel Winograd, Pablo and Eleanor Siegal

(Pablo's grandfather was Fyaba Isaac the butcher and lay cantor
in the “Cold Shul” mentioned in the chapter.)

Summer 1944. Rakov and the surrounding neighbourhood had just been liberated from the enemy. I, a surivivor of the few people who remained alive after living for two years as a partisan in the forests where my miserable life was spared, breathed with relief and inhaled inside myself the air of freedom. But the joy of freedom did not last long. All of a sudden, a horrible loneliness overwhelmed me. I realized that I was a sole survivor and that all my dear ones were massacred by the enemy. Everything inside me cried “Abandon the place and quickly, leave the land that soaked my brothers' blood.” On the other hand, I felt a strong urge to visit the ruins of my hometown. Before I left the place I had to face the mound of ashes, the sole remains of what had once been Rakov. I knew all that had happened on that impetuous, bitter day. I was among the few who escaped to the forests and joined the Russian partisans.

It was a beautiful Summer day. When I sat on the Goy's cart, who led me to the ruined, slaughtered shtetl, images of my youth crossed my mind. Those were the days of the outbreak of the October Revolution in 1917. I remembered myself among the hundreds of Rakovian youth, marching to the rhythms of the “Marseillaise,” played by the Revolutionary Russian Army band. The passion ran high! The whole town swelled with us, the marchers, like high tide sea waves. We had great expectations. We sang about a new emerging world, a superior world where the tortured Jewish People would find their rightful place. Ahah! How quickly the illusion vanished. Today, Life goes on as usual, although the world is devoid of my people. My people were annihilated, and I was on the road to visit one of their gravesites...

I was shrouded with those thoughts, when the cart entered Rakov's bounds. The edge of Vilna Street stayed intact. There I found Hillel Edelman, with a few other wretched, miserable fellows who had reached the shtetl ahead of me. Their appearance, and the sight of the destruction, filled my heart with depressing sadness. A few minutes passed, and none of us uttered a word. We just sat on the ground mourning silently and let our tears flow uninterrupted. Edelman was the first to break the silence. He turned towards me and told me that he and his friends had captured and put in the Jailhouse of Gmina, two of the town's Christian men who had taken part in the killing of the Jews of Rakov. These two were the sons of Golitzky the Tailor. Edelman asked me if I wanted to see them. “No!” I responded, “I can forgo this pleasure.”

We walked together to the market square. Here was the town's center and its commercial hub.

[Page 167]

Generations upon generations had made their livelihood here. We stood in the middle of the market square. For a second we forgot everything and wondered why was it dead silent here? For a short moment we imagined that the stores and the shops would be opened soon, that the Gentiles would jam the place with their wagons and the it would be filled with the hustle-bustle of a market place. Then, the next moment the horrible reality returned and our subconsciousness told us: “There are no more Jews here!” They were murdered, and most of them by their neighbors. And as much as the years in the forests had hardened us we could not hold back our tears. Together with us the heaps of ashes and the broken rubbish lying in piles on the sides of the streets were sobing. On our way we met some of our Gentile neighbors, they greeted us as long-standing acquaintances but the expression on their faces betrayed their bewilderment that some Jews had survived and again they were walking around Rakov's streets.

We reached the “Shul-Hoif”, and were jolted. Here stood the synagogues -- the “Old” and the “New”. Their walls absorbed the prayers of generations of Jews and their pleas to God in Heaven. Within their walls Jews poured their tears during Fast Days and during the Days of Awe. Here they celebrated, with “Hakafot” and dances, the Festival of Simchat Torah, when one cycle of Torah reading ended and a new one was about to begin. In the last few years before “The Flood”, the Zionist youth gave this Festival a new content, when between one hakafah (walking around the hall of the synagogue, carrying the Torah scrolls) and the next they sang the songs of Zion. Next to these synagogues stood the “Chasidishe Shtible” (a small synagogue, favored by Hassidic Jews). Here reigned R. Yossi the Bagel Baker. On the Sabbathas, between Mincha and Ma'ariv (the afternoon and evening prayers), he and his Chassidim friends hold “Shalosh Seudot” (the third meal of the Sabbath) in the “Shtible” and filled the air with their Hassidic melodies. When their hearts were lightened, they would start dancing, and their Sabbath clothes and their robes would fly in the air. Opposite the “Shtible” stood the “Kalte Shul” (The cold Synagogue.) On Saturdays one could hear Feibe Yitche the Butcher reading the Torah. His deep bass voice would come out of the synagogue and spread all over the town.

When had all this taken place? Was it many generations ago? No! Only four or five years had passed since this place was full of active, vibrant Jewish life. Now -- a mountain of ashes. We were standing among the ruins of this sacred place where there was no sign of all those who filled it with their prayers and with their studies of God's Torah. This was the site of the slaughter! Its air still carried the horrifying screams and moaning of those who had been led to their death. Here was the valley of manslaughter. Here was the last act of the bloody tragedy of the Jews of Rakov. Some charred bones could still be seen over here, and over there -- the remains of a child's shoe, which, for some reason, was not consumed by the fire and which did not rot during the two years that had passed since that day. We stood silently, remembering the souls of our saintly dear ones. I turned and faced East, and said “Kadish” in memory of my sister and her family, who died here with the rest of the martyrs of our town.

We departed from that place and continued to Bokarka. On our way we met Masha, the daughter of Yitche “Kilhes”. She complained that a Gentile woman, who had taken over the apartment of Moshe the Butcher, refused to let her in. We went to the place, and on our demand, the Christian woman left the apartment and the Jewess entered it.

[Page 168]

Here was Bokarka. In this suburb I first saw the light of day. Here I spent my childhood and my youth. It was here that I had absorbed the images of the houses, the balconies, the scenery and the beauty of the black-eyed girls. The girls used to sit on the steps in front of the houses and weave the dreams of their lives by the light of the moon. Black-eyed daughters of Bokarka, where are you?!...

At the end of our “journey” we found ourselves by the gates of the cemetery. Here, too, the destructive hand had reigned. Many gravestones disappeared. They were uprooted and taken away by the Gentiles. The fence almost collapsed, hanging on an hinge. In a year or two nothing would be left of this place either. I bade farewell to what had once been my hometown, and sailed with a broken heart to a far away world.

New York, 1957

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