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From a Ruined Garden

The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry

Edited and Translated by
Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Bioyarin
With Geographical Index and Bibliography by
Zachary M. Baker
Published in association with the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Washington, D.C.
Bloomington and Indianapolis

[Page 573]

The City Without Jews

Yekhiel Kirshnbaum

After the Liberation

(“From a Ruined Garden” page 254)

For twenty-one months I was in hiding in Praga. No less than forty-seven Jews passed through that bunker during that period, some for just a short time, some for a bit longer. At the end there were thirteen of us, Jews from various corners of Poland, who hid at the home of the Polish family Skolsky. They received money for our support from the aid organization that was in contact with the “London Delegation.” We knew that those involved in arranging this aid included Mrs. Berman (“Basha”), Samsonovitsh (“Leshtshinsky”) from Pietrkow, Paula Bugajska, and others. Those in the bunker with me also included Mendl Openhaym and his son Yankl, as well as Dina, one of Levental's granddaughters (now named Landboym). For a short time Yankl Grinberg and his son Srulik were there as well.

Twice our presence in the bunker was detected, and each time the extortionists took everything we possessed.

On September 16, 1944, Praga was liberated. I left the bunker and Yankl Openhaym and I set off for Minsk, which had been free since the beginning of August.

Exhausted, I set out on my way. The thought that I would soon see our city encouraged me nevertheless to undertake this first hard journey after liberation.

I arrived in the evening. The streets of Minsk were empty, without any sign of life. Not a single light showed in any of the windows, and it wasn't only because of the wartime curfew.

I went to see a Polish acquaintance, Karol Brutkovsky. I was warmly received. They fed me and invited me to spend the night. The next day they gave me breakfast. With a trembling in my heart I set off to look over the city.

My first impression was that everything had sunken into the earth. The streets were empty. The few people whom I met were strangers, Poles whom the Germans had expelled from the Poznan region and settled in Minsk. The Poles I was looking for had moved to the countryside out of fear of the frequent cannon fire from the Germans on the other side of Warsaw. I stayed in one such empty dwelling, where they let me be. I wandered through the empty streets, utterly alone, not knowing myself what I was looking for in the city which had once been full of Jews, including my family…

A few days later I found other Jews who began to gather at the house attached to Shefer's Restaurant on Kolia Street. Seventeen souls lived there, unattached and isolated, sick, exhausted, without food. The authorities paid little attention to them. We tried to better our situation and even to establish contact with Jews in the Red Army. That helped little.

One day my comrade Shaye Openhaym came to Minsk. This was the fifty-second day of the revolt in Warsaw. Shaye was an officer in the Home Army, and he took an active part in the revolt. He was wounded twice. After it became clear that the revolt was being bloodily stifled, he swam across the Vistula, barely making it to Minsk alive. When he got better, he immediately left the city. Several others, all of those who were able to, left the city as well, most of them going to Lublin, where the Jewish survivors were concentrated. Those who didn't leave the city lived in hope that the new authority that was being set up would in some way help them, the luckless ones who had lost everything and everyone. We also thought that our Polish friends would help us. This immediately turned out to be naive on our part.

I want to mention a few facts: during the Occupation the shoemaker Khrushchik promised me that he would help me hide. Later however, when I saw how he was buying up for pennies machines that had been stolen from Jews, I lost my faith in him. Now, after I arrived in the city, I decided to visit him. Perhaps he could help me in some way. But he greeted me so coldly that I immediately left him. Shortly afterward he was shot. There were rumors that Jews had taken revenge against him. Not until a few years later in the course of a trial did it turn out that he had been shot by the Home Army, because he didn't want to give them a certain sum of money they had demanded.

My experience with Khrushchik, who had made so much money from stolen Jewish wealth, showed me that I couldn't rely on individuals. I decided to turn to the new authorities, to Mayor Kozak, who had once belonged to the Polish Socialist Party.

Incidentally, I had learned that the city council office contained large stores of clothing, underwear, and bedding that had belonged to the fleeing Germans. Obviously that included a great many things that the Germans had stolen from abandoned Jewish houses in the ghetto after the Jews were taken to Treblinka.

My attempts to get something out of the city council were useless. “If you can show us that something here actually belongs to one of the surviving Jews, then by all means, he'll get it back,” the mayor disingenuously said to me. I had known Kozak well before the war, so I allowed myself to actually raise my voice to him in response. But that didn't help either. Two weeks later there was nothing left to talk about. The stores of clothing were distributed among their “own.” The two dozen or so sick Jewish survivors didn't get a single thread …

This made me terribly angry. I understood that no one would help us, that even in the new Poland, a wall of alienation still stood between us and our neighbors.

The new authority established itself, but the situation of the few Jews worsened, to the point where we could no longer even breathe freely. More than once a Pole was heard saying, “So many of the dogs are still here,” when he saw one of the Jewish survivors. Once again we felt that we had to explain to our fellow citizens why we had survived. We sensed that we made them uncomfortable, that the Poles had too much on their conscience, and that when we simply appeared before them, we reminded them too strongly of their collaboration with the occupiers, especially with regard to the extermination of the Jews…

One day I decided to return to our home. It turned out that after the Jews were expelled, our house had been occupied by Lukas Kaminsky. As soon as I returned, he disappeared from the city.

I spent a number of days unable to approach our house. Finally I gathered my strength and courage and went there. The door was locked. I didn't ask anyone's permission before I burst open the door and went in. The house was empty. All that was left was a bit of peat for fuel.

I found some old lumber with which I knocked together a bed and a table, and I began living in our old house… Soon I also found out why Kaminsky had escaped as soon as he found out I was still alive. It turned out that during the expulsion my two uncles, Moyshe Kirshnboym and Srulik Rubinshteyn, had hidden in our attic along with their wives and four children. Kaminsky had found them. He had called some Germans who shot everyone in our yard. This nightmare never left my mind the whole time I stayed in our house. I was afraid that Kaminsky might return to try and “rest” his uneasy conscience by killing the last witness … such things were beginning to happen.

Along with the nightmares I experienced while I was in our house, other, concrete troubles came. Next to us had lived Mrs. Izbrekht, the woman who sold liquor. Apparently she couldn't stand my return to our house either, and she began harassing me by sending to my house drunken Russian soldiers who wanted to find prostitutes. Soldiers began coming to my door every night, because she had confided to them that in this house there were a number of girls available… More than once in the middle of the night I had to open the door for soldiers who looked all around before they convinced themselves that no one was there and they went away frustrated. Finally I had to move to another house.

Gradually life in town grew more and more insecure. There were regular reports that here and there a Jew had been shot. At Mrozes, a Jew was shot by Home Army personnel, as I learned some years later.

At the same time there was theft of Jewish possessions. Whatever the Germans didn't manage to rob, the Poles took care of. They took down Jewish houses so they could use the bricks to build houses for themselves. Even the member of the People's Commission in Minsk, Yakhatsy, took down the wall of the Jewish cemetery, which was still full of Jewish gravestones at the time, and used the stones in building his house. Furthermore, the chairman of the trade union was Pan Melasa, who used to make me hand over to him everything I had each time he spotted me outside the ghetto during the war without the blue and white armband that Jews had to wear. Otherwise he would threaten to take me to the Gestapo…

In addition, the tensions between the various parties and the Polish People's Republic, and the murders that took place amongst the Poles themselves, worried the Jews. The Poles blamed every bad thing that happened in town on the “Jew-commune.” Finally, one night seven Poles were shot at once. Among them were a number of well-known anti-Semites and even one Communist. The town militia included four Jewish youths who had survived the Warsaw Ghetto revolt. They were so frightened that they fled the town. One day, after Warsaw had been liberated, I decided to leave Minsk as well. I went to Warsaw. All the rest gradually left Minsk. The only ones who stayed were Shike Tayblum and the two converted daughters of the Holtzbands.

During the years I lived in Warsaw, until I emigrated to Israel, I often visited Minsk. I did not spend the night there even once, however. It's not hard to understand why.

Things were constantly insecure in those days. There were daily denunciations by one Pole against another. Whenever two neighbors fought, they immediately rushed to the new authorities with denunciations, and the militia had their hands full…

The Unveiling of the Memorial at the Cemetery

During my frequent visits to the city I often walked through the cemetery. The only traces left of the town's Jewish life were there: the remaining stones with Jewish letters, the ones they hadn't managed to carry away…

There, at the cemetery, was also the huge mass grave of the more than one thousand Jews who had been shot on the day of the roundup in the streets of the town. I had the idea of setting up a gravestone, a memorial at the site of the mass grave. …I talked to the Holtzbands about it, to try to convince them to approach the authorities about the plan. But nothing came of this until my visit to Paris. Here I met my fellow townspeople and proposed the project, which they undertook.

Several years went by, and the project began to be realized. A good deal of money began to come in to pay for the building of the monument and I, together with Moyshe Bornshteyn, began to push for the work to begin. Most of all we wanted to assure that the memorial would be made of a material that couldn't be easily destroyed--thick marble that would be massive and durable.

The unveiling of the memorial was set for August 21, 1967, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the extermination, in the presence of a large contingent of our townspeople who had made a special trip from Paris to be there.

In accordance with the protocol that had been established in Poland, official representatives of the government, the schools, the workers' committees in the factories and the like were all invited.

The ceremony was supposed to begin at four in the afternoon. It was a glorious day. The sun was shining. It was warm. Everyone waited for the solemn moment.

All the guests had assembled on the spot. It was around ten to four. Suddenly the skies became cloudy. It literally became dark and a bizarre, heavy rain began to fall. Everyone began to scatter. Only a few official guests stayed at the spot. The ceremony was shortened. The guests from France and the few Minsk Jews who had come from Warsaw went to a restaurant to continue the ceremony. A quarter of an hour later the sun came back out and the weather was once again beautiful, and it stayed that way all day…

It was an extraordinary event. The heavens wept along with us, and I cannot forget the scene even today…

It must be admitted that the local government was extremely cooperative concerning this monument, because its establishment entailed revision of the entire urbanization plan for the city. The plan called for the construction of a major artery to be cut through this spot, leading from the hospital to Warsaw Street. Thanks to our intervention, the site of the cemetery remained untouched.

It is interesting that shortly after the dedication of our monument, in the year 1968, the Jews of Zhirardov were scheduled to do the same thing. They weren't even allowed into Poland. They were forced to leave the Warsaw airport and return directly to Vienna…

The local authorities in Minsk promised to maintain the Jewish cemetery and the area around the monument. For its part the Jewish delegation from Paris promised the sum of four hundred dollars for the school, which was rebuilt at the site of the former Kopernik School. The money was sent a few months later. The city government also wanted a donation for a kindergarten to be built on the site of the former Talmud Torah in the rabbi's yard. This remained no more than a dream, because the kindergarten was to be named after the slaughtered Jews, and nothing has come of it in the meantime.

My Last Visit in Town Before I Emigrated

In postwar Poland there were Jews who believed that after the experiences of the war it would be possible for those Jews who so desired to continue living peacefully in Poland along with the Polish population, which would gradually purify itself of the poison of anti-Semitism. That turned out to be an illusion. I too had fooled myself, and when I realized that, I decided to leave that ungrateful country.

I went to Minsk for the last time to say goodbye to the city in which I was born and raised, the city where I had hoped and dreamed. I came to gaze for the last time at the city in which I'd survived the pogrom and then lain in a cast for nine months recovering from the blows I'd suffered at the hands of the enraged hooligans, the city in which I'd survived the war and the extermination…

I wanted to gaze once again at the historical injustice, and perhaps I wanted to look once again straight into the eyes of my own deception…

Once again I wanted to see the city where more than five thousand Jews had lived productive lives, but never escaped the category of second-class citizens.

All day I walked around the city without meeting a single familiar and cheerful face, without seeing a thing that felt close to me. More than ever I felt then that everything there was so alien, so traitorously alien to me.

As I passed Warsaw Street I passed Schultz's mill and remembered: this ethnic German was the first one, after the Germans arrived, to start wearing a swastika and to capture Poles to send to work in Germany. But he was forgiven even that. No one wanted to talk about that any longer. He got off with just a prison sentence. After all, Schultz wasn't a Jew, so no one hated him that much.

A gentile acquaintance of mine stopped me and asked: “What are they doing with you?”

I asked him a question in return: “What do you mean, 'with you?'”

“Well, with the Jews?” I kept silent, waiting for him to continue, and it didn't take long before he explained. “If you'd lost to the Arabs Gomulka might have laid wreaths at the monuments, but now we're glad the Soviets took a beating.” I still kept silent, because he was a member of the Party, and I was afraid he might be trying to provoke me.

I passed the erstwhile Jewish stores and workshops where Jews had worked and done business. I had the impression I was being seen as an unwelcome guest.

I went away, and immediately I found myself at the factory which had belonged to the Jew Fogelnest. I had worked there after the war. I found no trace of the past whatsoever, although the factory was functioning just as it had before the war. Even the workers alongside whom I'd worked didn't recognize me now. I wanted to work with those who had robbed our home after the action in the ghetto, but not one of them even wanted to talk to me…

Now I was back in the marketplace, which had been thoroughly rebuilt. Along one side of the marketplace a large house with apartments for the workers at Rudsky's factory had been built. From there I went to have a look at Nadzhetshna Street (the rabbi's street), at Shenitzka Street. Was it really possible that I wouldn't meet a single familiar face from the past?

It took me just a few minutes to arrive at the Jewish cemetery. From a distance I could see the top of the monument. When I got there my eyes absorbed the terrible disorder and neglect of the place. The monument was indeed intact, but everything around it was overgrown with weeds; the authorities had so quickly found a way not to keep their word to maintain the place properly… My eyes were also struck by the sight of the broken gravestones scattered all around. The place was still used as a quarry for stones to pave the roads and side streets of the city… From the spot I could also see the fine new houses that had been built on Shenitza Street. Yes, Shenitza Street without a single Jew! I passed through that street on my way back from the cemetery. I encountered a number of people along that street, and they looked at me as if I were a madman. I thought to myself, “It's good that I won't come back here. It's good that nothing will ever again bring me back to this place which has become so strange to me.”

Yes, I did meet one Jew there, Shiye Tayblum. He has a little shop; he installs windowpanes. That's how he earns his living. He lives on Mostowa Street in Gliksberg's house, which passed into his possession after the war. No, he didn't need anything more than to eat and to drink. He was satisfied. He doesn't feel the surrounding strangeness. He'll live out his years there… odd…

I arrived at the site of the former Kopernik School. Now the former school bears the name of the Jewish fighter Hanka Sawitcka. Built into the wall of the renovated building is a memorial plaque with a reminder that 220 Jews were burned alive here on January 10, 1943. The plaque, which was placed there by our townspeople in Paris at the same time as the unveiling of the memorial, was still intact at that time. Let us hope that no one will vandalize it.

I stood in front of the plaque remembering everyone who had been through the camps and who was no longer among the living. I myself had come here right after the slaughter. Here I had begun to think about ways of organizing resistance. From here had departed the first groups that went to join the partisans. I had handed over to the son of the principal, Adolf Dobrzynsky, everything I owned in exchange for the promise to hide me. I gave him a fur coat, my brother's violin, and a little bit of money. He gave us an address in Warsaw where we could meet him and get everything back after we arrived safely in Warsaw. When we arrived in Warsaw, I went to see him together with Shaye Openheim, who had given me money to help me survive. At first Dobrzynsky received us very calmly, but soon we found out what he was interested in: he wanted us to tell him where Shmuel Rosenberg was hiding. He knew that Shmuel Rosenberg was a son of rich parents, and he calculated that Shmuel had to have a lot of money. When we told him we didn't know where Shmuel was, his tone immediately changed and he began to curse at us, shouting: "It's a sin for me to know that you're still alive!"

We immediately realized that we were in danger, so I tersely declared to him, “We see with whom we're dealing now, but God help you if you follow us.” He understood what I was saying. We had a revolver. We went downstairs and stood by the gate for a while, to see whether he would follow us. Only when we were sure that he wasn't following did we quickly run away. Incidentally, he didn't survive the war…

It wasn't far from Kopernik School to Rudsky's factory, and there I was. This was the spot from which I escaped to Warsaw. Since then the factory had expanded. I spoke to Schubert, who had been my supervisor when I had worked there for a time. I was grateful for his generous treatment of me. He knew that I belonged to the partisans. Now, looking at the building that housed the electric plant, I mourned for the Jews who hadn't accepted the offer I made when I stopped working there, an offer of a rifle, so that they could take revenge on the Germans in case there was a roundup…

These memories of the German occupation were quickly pushed out of my mind by the present troubles that we, the few Jews surviving in Poland, were facing anew. I was sure that a National Democratic Poland after the war would have been more tolerant toward the Jews than the Communist government was. The path I had chosen after the liberation had turned out to be so mistaken, so fruitless… My twenty-four years working for the “new” Poland turned out to be one large mistake. I returned to Warsaw, packed my bags and got ready to leave. All the way to the border I was unsure: would they let us out, or would they arrest us?

On November 25, 1968, I arrived in Israel.

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