One day, a few weeks before the outbreak of the war, a representative from the Jewish community of Ostrowiec, Mr. Lederman, came to Ozarow. He was a gifted speaker who was able to explain the seriousness of the situation to everyone, and he exhorted the Jews of Ozarow to make their own contribution to the war effort in the face of the German menace. He declared that he had not come to convert us Jews into patriots, but he emphasized that if Poland could defend itself, that would also be our victory, as well as the best guarantee of our security. Otherwise, we were doomed.
The situation became more and more threatening. Youngsters were conscripted to dig trenches in anticipation of an aerial attack.
On the night of August 31, 1939, a silent procession of Jews and Poles marched side by side from the market place to the church lane, the first time in the history of the village that both communities were united in any kind of manifestation. A young university student named Potocki addressed the crowd and made a stirring appeal for solidarity to defend the Motherland in peril. Everyone then sang the Polish national anthem and recited the military oath, the Rota.
The Germans began their attack on the morning of Friday, September 1, and the Jews of Ozarow prepared their Sabbath in grim sadness, aware that this was no ordinary Sabbath but war.
On September 3, a general mobilization was declared, and we witnessed the arrival of the first refugees who had fled the border region with Germany.
Soon they became an exodus, thousands of people crossing Ozarow toward the Vistula. All of these refugees hoped that the river would enable the Poles to block the German advance. An oppressive heat weighed on this long procession of wagons, bicycles and pedestrians marching eastward. Ozarow was dense with people. On Wednesday, the sixth day of the war, Ozarow was bombed. On the little public square there was a well, which the German planes flying over the village obliterated with their bombardment. Sarah Donditchke, an old woman, was sitting on her doorstep, with a child on her lap. One burst killed her instantly. The child was hurled to the ground, but miraculously, got up unscathed. People ran to the fields for shelter. A number of them were felled by bullets or severe burns, like Wolvale Waksman, and his two little boys.
After the first shock, the population organized itself. Most of the Jews of the Main Street and the market quarter abandoned the centre of the village, taking shelter with families living closer to the outskirts. There they stayed with doors and windows closed under the exhausting heat of the long September days. It was impossible to get relief from sleep. Each night was an eternity of anguish. Even the dogs stopped barking.
On Thursday, September 7, 1939, the Germans occupied Ozarow. Everywhere you could see tanks, cannons and hundreds of soldiers taking their positions, while the rest of the troops continued their eastward advance. The houses remained shuttered, with no one daring to set foot outside.
But this situation did not last long, for the Germans began to hammer on the closed doors with their fists and to bark orders. The Jews were conscripted into forced labour.
The time of menace, humiliation and death had begun.
It was the first week of the German occupation in September 1939, and we had been living with several other families at my Aunt Malka's on Ostrowiec Street. One morning, we heard deafening knocks on our door, accompanied by shouts of, Outside! Outside! All men between 16 and 60, outside! Those who disobey will be shot! So my brother Shimon, Moishe, my aunt's grandson, our neighbour, Abraham Zalcman, and myself all found ourselves out on the street, where other Jews were already waiting.
The Germans forced us to run. If anyone stumbled, he was beaten black and blue with rifle butts and had to manage to rejoin the race by trying to catch up with his group on the road to the synagogue.
The latter filled up in a few minutes. The Germans had drawn an uncrossable chalk line on the floor, which forced us to cram closer and closer together. All talk was forbidden. Tobacco, watches, jewels and all valuables were confiscated. The atmosphere grew stifling. A few hours later, the Germans ordered us to leave the premises, which caused a crush around the exit. They gathered us in the synagogue square and began to crop the beards of the oldest men with bayonets, while they showered the victims with sarcastic taunts. Then they ordered the filthy Jews to once more get into the synagogue.
Following an identical scenario, we were once again crammed together. And once again, we had to leave in the same disorder under a barrage of insults. Yet, to be outdoors, able to take a breath of fresh air was a great relief to us. But we had no idea of what to expect next. A few officers showed up and ordered that the bakers be released so that they could prepare bread for the population. The soldiers then culled out all men older than 50, cut off their beards with bayonets and without a further word, ordered them to hightail it home.
Those who remained were once more herded into the sanctuary. Since there were now fewer of us, the Germans forced us to gather even closer together. The day dragged on without respite, and the more time passed, the greater grew our worry as to our fate.
Then bellowed orders startled us. Everyone outside! Three at a time! We saw Basia Nissenbaum arrive, accompanied by a German officer. He had requisitioned a part of her house. She managed to obtain the release of her son Abraham, of his father-in-law Meyer Fraiman and numerous others, and they all went home.
For the rest of us, the situation did not change. With night approaching, we still did know what was to be our fate, and having already been held prisoner for 15 hours, we were exhausted. Shortly after nightfall, a soldier fired a shot in the air and yelled into the deathly silence: You have three minutes to get yourselves home! Run as fast as you can because it's late and the curfew has already sounded. If you linger on the way, the patrol will gun you down without hesitation!
During the summer of 1939, a farmer from the region called on the shoemaker Moishe-Leib and ordered himself a pair of boots which he paid for with the ruby ring on his finger. Moishe-Leib bought the materials and set to work. Once the boots were made, he hung them in his shop to await the return of his customer.
In the meantime, the war broke out. With the occupation, the price of all the necessities of life (food, leather garments, etc.) soared. Here was Moishe-Leib with a dilemma! Not to give the pair of boots to its rightful owner would be dishonest. On the other hand, considering the increase in the cost of living, if he sold them at the same price as before the war, he might as well give them away! Moishe-Leib found a customer ready to pay twice the original price for the boots. It was a done deal! The profit he made would allow him to buy enough leather to make two new pairs. Thus, when the first customer came back, Moishe-Leib delivered his boots with a clear conscience and without losing anything in the matter. Furthermore, he had enough leather left to make another pair for which the price first doubled, then tripled.
So the result was that Moishe-Leib and his wife wore smiles on their faces. For fear of arousing the jealousy of others, they avoided displaying the boots in the shop, but hid them well behind their bed in the shelter of their bedroom. Moishe-Leib would constantly repeat, If we only make it through the war, with our three pairs of boots we'll be the happiest people in the world!
Near Annopol, in Linow, lived the Rosenberg family. They were landowners who had been settled there for several generations, with farms, forests, houses and still other property. The German occupiers had plundered them and driven them away at the very beginning of the war. So until better days returned, the Rosenbergs came to live in Ozarow. You can understand that they did not come empty-handed, but the months went by, and their situation deteriorated to one of precariousness.
In the ghetto, all goods were officially confiscated. The least valuable, even the least significant consumer item had an inestimable value if it had not been declared to the German authorities. A black market existed, and those who had the means could dress decently. As for the poor, they had to rely upon their resourcefulness and ingenuity to mend and make over
their clothes. Leather soles disappeared, replaced by wooden ones. A new fabric soon made its appearance. It was made from paper!
Aarale, the shoe merchant, was a wretched man. He had succeeded in hiding away in safekeeping his stock of raw materials and shoes. Sometimes he would take some of the goods from their hiding place and barter them for something valuable.
It was this very same Aarele Kleinman whom Rosenberg, the former landowner from Linow, resolved to contact. He proposed a deal to Aarale for after the war. Rosenberg would sell him land, forests and houses. Kleinman would advance him the money right away, with the deed of sale to be signed later, when things got back to normal. They reached an agreement. Rosenberg got his cash, while the little shoe merchant was now a powerful landlord!
One spring night in 1942, Aarale and his wife were rudely awakened from their sleep by an unusual noise. Petrified with fright, through the gloom they were able to make out several silhouetted figures climbing down from their attic. A gang of thieves was in the midst of looting their stock of goods stored there. One of the crooks saw Aarale and warned him in a voice laden with menace, Shut your mouth! Not a word about our little visit, if you know what's good for you! In spite of the darkness, Aarale could recognize the speaker's face. No doubt about it, it was a stall keeper from a circus which had just set up its tent in Ozarow. At the time rumour had it in the village that a group of hooligans (Jewish and Polish) were looting the ghetto. The story is told that certain Jews whose houses had been broken into during the night preferred to keep silent out of fear of reprisal.
Aarale Kleinman was arrested and dragged to the Gestapo station in Ostrowiec. There he came face to face with the circus employee who had threatened him, and who at the present time was testifying against him. He was horribly tortured, then thrown into a dark cell. He died a few hours later.
At the beginning of May 1942, a hundred young Ozarowers were summoned by the Judenrat. They came before a commission made up of SS men and German civilians, then they were packed into trucks to be taken to a labour camp. A system of payoffs enabled those who could afford the going rate of a thousand zlotys to have a substitute taken in their place or that of a relative. No one in Ozarow could have imagined the fate which awaited all of these young people.
German firms set up in Ozarow and its environs in order to pave the local network of roads. Construction of two major axes had been decided: Kielce-Radom in the north, and Kielce-Lublin in the east. The Judenrat had been ordered to supply the labour, so every morning hundreds of people left to work on the roads or on high tension electrical power installations.
On Friday morning, September 3, 1942, the Germans knocked on our door. Within minutes my brother and I found ourselves on the market square in the company of 50 other Jews. In no time at all, our group had swollen to 3,000 men and women, surrounded by the Jewish ghetto police. Then, the representatives of the German firms came to pick up their allotment of workers.
My brother Shimon was assigned to high tension installations, and I managed to sneak into his work gang. I had to take this risk because my Kenkarte, or ghetto identity card, was no longer valid. Unfortunately, my ruse failed to get by an SS man on duty. He immediately checked my papers, then beat me and dragged me on the ground. (At Hassag I recognized him as the SS man Dumine). I can't remember how long this lasted. Someone picked me up and helped me get on my feet. From a distance, I caught sight of my mother, who threw me a package which contained a few personal effects and a bit of bread. Not being able to get near me, she was resolved to at least do this much. I would never see her again. My brother, for the time being, was lucky enough to be able to go home every night and spend time with her.
At the market place I noticed a number of people who were dear to me: my brother-in-law Hersh-El'ye, his brother Meilech, and my old Aunt Malka who had brought a parcel for the husband of her granddaughter Gittela.
After the commandos had departed for their labour camps, we were ordered to form in groups of five, men and women separately. We were
then marched five kilometres to the rail station at Jasice, under the surveillance of the Judenrat, the Polish police and a gang of Ukrainians, all supervised by the SS.
We began by going through Ozarow. On Kolejowa (Station) Street we passed in front of my house. I turned my head and could see my older sister Chava, prudently hiding behind her window, follow our departure with her eyes. Could she have spotted me in the middle of our group? Something told me that it would be the last time I saw her.
We continued our march, surrounded by the SS and their henchmen. A stifling heat weighed upon us. We reached Wyszmontow. The grain crop was at its peak, and the wheat had already been harvested. I could glimpse fields in blossom. Potato fields. In October, the peasants would pull them from the ground and store them for winter. In October... but who would be there in October?
The Germans ordered us to halt, then ordered us to parade in front of a group of young Nazis, who with clubs in their clenched fists assailed us with questions: Are you in good health? Do you want to go back home, or would you prefer to work? By chance I ended up beside Shloime Goldstein, the brother of my friend Leon, who lives in the United States today. Seeing the rain of blows showered on those who showed any desire to go home, we of course replied, We want to work! The victims of the beatings were also subjected to revolting humiliations. They were ordered to strip, and we thought then that they had come to their end. But no, instead they were told to clear out and to head naked through the fields, back to the ghetto.
At Jasice they crammed us into cattle cars. Among us, there were two brothers, nephews of a member of the Judenrat. Soon they were inexplicably let go. On the other hand, the brothers Sender and Meilech Borenstein (a father of four children), the Hillel Adlers, the Shloime Frydmans, and so many others, did not enjoy similar protection. The labour camp awaited us! We had to leave.
Upon our arrival at the Skarzysko camp, there were around 700 men and women in our group. The Germans divided us into three sections: A, B and C. Section A, to which I belonged, was immediately brought to the registration office. I was given the number 4098. The Germans asked us to indicate our trade, although they made no practical application of this information. In reality, we all became slave labourers in the Hassag factory, (ironically, a work place forbidden to Jews before the war). A few days later there was an assembly. We were forced to surrender all valuable objects: jewellery, silver, leather boxes, etc. The slightest gesture of resistance invited summary execution. Thus, our last memories of home were wrested from us. In this way, Régine (Raca), who later became my wife, had the earrings which she had worn since she was a year old taken away from her. Her older brother Shaul was a member of our convoy. He took the chance of escaping, and actually made it back to Ozarow... but Ozarow was the beginning of the road to Treblinka.
Ten days later, I was working the night shift. In the absence of supervisors, we stretched out on the ground, behind the large Economat building. All of a sudden, whistles pierced the air, followed by angry shouts. This was followed by the appearance of the SS, flanked by the inevitable Ukrainians. All of the sick inmates, both men and women, were dragged from their pallets and stretched out on the ground. Those who didn't look well, or whose clothes were torn, were grouped apart. I ended up among those who still passed for being in good shape, in the company of two other Ozarowers: Antchel Waksman and Cudyk Weingarten. The Germans came to us and asked us a single question: Are you in good health?
Three by three, our group started out to the factory for a night of toil.
the way, we wondered about a new development. Even then, many still hoped to return to the village. As for the sick, what fate could be in store for them? Cudyk regretted not having feigned sickness. It must be said that he had left a wife and five children behind in the village, and his oldest daughter shared our lot in the camp.
But one morning three weeks later, at dawn, as we were leaving the factory, we were ordered to wait. All those who had declared themselves sick had to leave the ranks.
We silently watched Chaim, Moishe and many others as they were marched away. On that day in October 1942, we lost half of our group from Ozarow.
At the factory, we worked alongside free Poles, some of whom we were able to persuade to carry messages to our relatives. In return, our families would, according to their means, send us what we needed to survive. We had to chip in to pay off the Poles who acted as our go-between, and most of the time, they would take advantage of the situation by not delivering us all of the articles or provisions which our families had entrusted to them. Malka, Chana, Chava and my wife Régine, four Ozarow girls, found a Pole who agreed to go to their parents. This worthy fellow returned from his visit empty-handed, claiming that in the course of his trip, the Germans had checked him and taken everything a rather transparent excuse, but the Ozarow girls, understandably, had no one to whom they could complain about such dishonesty. Even more intolerable, this Pole could be seen every day wearing clothing stolen from Jews, in particular, the overcoat and shoes belonging to the brother of one of the girls.
I was lucky enough to find a Pole named Blasiak, the head of my work gang, who behaved otherwise. He visited our families in Ozarow several times, and in return they were able to send parcels of food back with him, as well as precious information.
In a letter which my mother was thus able to smuggle to me, she wrote, Your brother Shimon has been thrown off his work crew and replaced by a protégé of the Judenrat. The situation is very serious. To be in a work camp seems the last chance of survival, but that chance is no longer available for us. You left us six weeks ago. The relatives of the Judenrat and the Jewish police have been untouched by this misfortune, and now they're replacing people like your brother in an attempt at survival. A grim fate awaits us; I fear this is my last letter.
Raphael Goldstein, the baker, who had a son named Shloime, worried about finding him a suitable trade: He's too tall to be a baker's boy. He'd have to fold himself in two to get the breads in the oven! No, the baker's trade is not for him. Why not make him a carpenter's apprentice instead? I'll hand him over to Moishe the Sheep, the best craftsman in Ozarow. After all, my Shloime is a brave and robust fellow may God help him! he deserves a good trade, one in which he won't have to work himself into the ground night and day, like his poor father! So Shloime became apprenticed to Moishe the Sheep. Of course, he started with low-level work and was sent on all kinds of errands. He never balked at his work, and each time he went by the paternal bakery, he would dash in to taste a donut that would melt in your mouth or bite into a succulent onion roll. Alta, his mother grumbled that he was losing too much time stuffing himself with these treats, but Raphael was more indulgent: May he eat to his heart's content! He needs strength in his line of work.
As was the custom at that time, the young apprentice received no wage. Before long, his boss entrusted him with all the deliveries. It was he who transported the sideboards, the tables, the armoires and the chairs, for which he generally received a tip from the customers. Shloime was not a little proud to show his parents that he could, with his own earnings, afford to go to the cinema and even invite a girlfriend, or Chaya his older sister, to go along. Unfortunately, this budding happiness did not last long, in the face of the war and the occupation.
His older brother Laibel set off for Russia, and Hershel, Raphael's youngest son, ran the bakery, but Shloime would never again set foot in a carpenter's shop. He was forced, like many other Jews of the ghetto, to pave roads under the orders of the Nazis.
In the course of the big roundup of September 1942, we were both selected for the same forced labour camp and we left Ozarow together, pressed side by side in the same rail car.
A week after our arrival in Skarzysko, each of us received a parcel officially sent by the Judenrat. It was the result of a collection in aid of the victims of the roundup of September 3. Shloime scrupulously oversaw the fair distribution of the contents. Our group at least at the beginning occupied the pallets on the fifth level.
One night, an individual who did not belong to our floor tried to steal one of our packages. Shloime caught him in the act and sent him flying to the ground, letting him know with a little muscle that we were all stuck in the same boat.
Soon he became the one responsible for the division and distribution of our bread because of his sense of fairness, and who better to be in charge of such a task than a baker's son? From then on, everyone nicknamed him Shloimele the Ozarower.
When I awakened one morning, I discovered that someone had stolen my boots. Shloime joined me right away in hunting for them. The beginning of the work day loomed ominously. How would I ever walk barefoot in the mud and snow? Shloime immediately took off his own right boot and told me, Here, put this on! We'll support each other until we can find out where your boot went. And so that's how we went off to work that day. Shloime suspected that the thief would wait a few days before wearing my boots or trying to sell them. His deduction proved accurate and it didn't take him long to recover them.
One night in February 1943, the chief of the Ukrainian police, flanked by a few henchmen, barged into our workshop shouting angrily. Was this to be a new selection? No, they seized Shloimele and marched him off to the office of the shop manager. We saw him again on our return from work. He looked haggard, with a vacant stare that no longer recognized us. For us, he was already doomed. We knew that it couldn't be long before he disappeared without a trace.
In the summer of the same year, while I was at my work station, I noticed a shadow lurking behind the barred windows of the workshop. When I looked more closely, I was shocked to recognize our dear Shloimele the Ozarower! He was able to explain to me that he was coming, under escort, to the disinfecting bath in the company of Group C: I don't have any other chance to see the old bunch from Group A. I already came once, but it was impossible for me to break away for even a second. Today it was possible.
If you only knew, he continued, how happy I am that we're both still alive. You know, while I was being interrogated, I thought I would be killed on the spot. But I said nothing, nothing! And then I heard them say, ÔGroup C'. I had traded a piece of shoe leather (in fact the end of a transmission drive belt) for a hunk of bread. The guards took the man with the piece of belt by surprise, and after he was whacked a few times
with a club, he informed on me. Both of us are now in the same punishment work gang, working with hazardous chemicals. That's why my skin has turned yellow.
I saw Shloimele the Ozarower again a little later. I, along with five other workers from our group, had been designated to carry three huge cauldrons of soup from the factory to the business office. En route, we had to halt to make way for a group going to the bath. Shloime was among them. We exchanged intense looks. The yellow shade of his face had grown deeper. He wore rags in the guise of clothes. We succeeded in slipping him a few potatoes and in filling up his tin soup bowl. He gulped it straight from the bowl, not bothering to use a spoon. Then the guards ordered us to move on. He discreetly showed us the precious potatoes he had managed to keep, even as he ran by.
We were never to see him again.
An interminable year went by. Our tormentors were forced by the Soviet advance to evacuate the factory, which for many of us deported Jews meant liquidation, purely and simply, and for Group C first of all. The Germans made sure to leave neither traces nor witnesses behind. Undoubtedly, it was during this ultimate selection that Shloimele the Ozarower came to his end.
From the very first days of the German occupation, posters appeared advertising Der Sturmer, Julius Streicher's notorious anti-Semitic newspaper. Every day, many Jews were requisitioned for forced labour. Goods of all kind were cruelly lacking, and a black market quickly sprung up. Right away, the occupiers put a Polish militia in place and made the town mayor, Mr. Bidzinski, its commander. While Bidzinski and most of the militiamen were sincere patriots, their attitude toward Jews faithfully reflected the anti-Semitism of the Polish government which had not needed the arrival of the Germans to manifest itself.
One day, a quarrel broke out between the Mandel brothers and Bidzinski. He had ordered them to surrender all of their stock and store it in the grocery store of Lesniewski, a Pole. Yankel and Fishel Mandel refused to comply with this order. So at the mayor's demand, they were promptly arrested by the Germans and sent to Opatow, the administrative centre of the region. The two young men would never come back.
The Mandel family had four brothers. In addition to the vanished Yankel and Fishel, there were Shaul and Meyer, both honourably regarded, and ready to defend, head to head, the honour of the Ozarow Jewish community in the face of anti-Semitic provocation. To boot, they were solid fellows, never shy to throw a few good punches.
One day in the winter of 1943, a few months after the liquidation of the Jews of Ozarow, some customers were sitting at tables in what had recently been the grocery store of Reuven Rochwerg, but was now a bistro kept by a Pole from the village. The mayor was sipping his drink, when a placid looking customer showed up. He came up to the mayor and asked him, Is it you who is Mr. Bidzinski? The latter nodded yes, and at this, the quiet customer pulled out a pistol and fired several shots into the mayor, who died instantly. In the confusion that followed, the stranger leaped on a horse and disappeared into the mist. The Poles who witnessed the scene swore that they recognized Shaul Mandel as the assassin on horseback.
From the moment the Germans arrived, Ozarow was officially declared a ghetto zone. And just as soon, anti-Semitic graffiti spread like a fungus over the walls of the village. This propaganda was of course addressed to the Polish population who really needed no conversion, for anti-Semitism had been enrooted in their hearts and minds from their tenderest years. All Jews had to wear an armband on their right arm which consigned them to shame and to forced labour if they were between the ages of 16 and 60.
seated: Menia Shafir & Leah Apelbaum. Right photo, from left: Brandil Rosenbaum & Feiga Melman
The Germans decided to set up a Judenrat, or Jewish administrative council, in their eyes the only representative institution. From then on, it was only with them that they would deal, and upon them whom they would rely to keep the Jewish population underfoot. The wise old men
with long beards who for decades had made up the community council were thrown out, and in their place the Judenrat was installed, becoming the main institution to take in hand all the problems which could arise in the ghetto. Its members lost no time in bringing on their relatives and friends, and it was in this troubled breeding ground that the Judenrat recruited a Jewish police force.
At this time, the beginning of 1940, the Ozarow ghetto comprised nearly 5,000 people. This was a ghetto that was not encircled by barbed wire, so that dealings with the local Poles remained possible. But it was still necessary to have objects of value or cash in order to get by. As the situation deteriorated, many Jews poured into Ozarow. Jews from neighbouring towns and villages had to abandon all of their possessions in order simply to move into the ghetto. Likewise, many Jews who had been born in Ozarow returned thinking that there they would be able to find refuge with their families. After the Germans annexed the region of Wloclawek to the Reich, more than 600 Jews, men, women and children, were expelled and poured into Ozarow. The village also received a transport of 100 families who had come from Austria. In very little time, the population of Ozarow had doubled and was living in precarious conditions.
In December 1939 two bales of clothing had arrived from America. It was the Joint Distribution Committee which had succeeded in sending aid to the refugees and to the poor people of the ghetto, but it was not the poor people of the village on whose backs the clothing ended up. A soup kitchen was set up on the premises of the Jewish primary school, and the prayer house was converted into a dormitory for the refugees, while the synagogue became a hospital.
One of the members of the Judenrat council took up residence in the apartments of Fishel and Yankel Mandel in the building that belonged to them, while the council itself decided to establish its quarters in the neighbouring house of Itche Warshawski. A passageway was constructed between the offices of the Judenrat and the Mandel apartments.
All those who could afford it paid a weekly tax to the Judenrat in order to avoid certain work details. But if in the meantime, the Germans assigned them to some other task, too bad for them. The money they had given was thrown out. Only those close to the Judenrat and the Jewish police seemed to be able to escape these tribulations.
1942: The roundups. The end of the administrative council It was the afternoon of Thursday, August 26, 1942, one week before our deportation and two months before the extermination of our parents and the entire Jewish community of Ozarow. I had been arrested by the ghetto police and here I was in the Judenrat offices. Suddenly, the chief of the Jewish police burst into the room, dragging poor Abush Shuldman by the collar while clubbing him vigorously: When I the police chief order you to stop in the street, you must obey. This character certainly had a respectable facade, for he was a lawyer, but it was said that in the years before the war, he collaborated with the Polish authorities, informing on those who took part in illegal political activities. At least, that is what several survivors now living in Israel, England and Canada affirm. His services had earned him the sympathy of the Polish police, and he had become the police chief of the ghetto.
Overwhelmed with blows, the unfortunate Abush still had the courage to answer back which cost him dearly. As for me, I waited in the company of about a hundred others. After a couple of hours, they released us.
Friday morning, September 2, 1942 was the time of the first big roundup. The Germans came knocking at our doors, and my brother Shimon and I formed part of the first contingent of 50 Jews destined for the camps.
In the market place, I followed the police chief with my eyes. He rushed into a narrow alley and soon emerged dragging Abush Shuldman. With a mocking and threatening tone he taunted him: I'll keep an eye on you myself! Rest assured. You're going far away from here and there will be no return trip!
Abush was in my convoy. We travelled to the camp in the same rail car. He was not to survive in the two months that followed our departure for the camp. The Germans continued to use the Jewish police until the very last minute. Then they united the members of the Judenrat, the Jewish police and their victims in a common fate. For one and all, that was liquidation, pure and simple. No one would survive. Thus would be turned over one of the grimmest pages in the history of the Jews of Ozarow.
From the outskirts of Ozarow a sandy road led to the hamlet of Sakhalin four kilometres away. A small Jewish community lived there composed of several families vaguely connected with each other and settled there for several generations.
The Jews of Sakhalin were farmers who owned their own land. In addition, they possessed quarries, limestone kilns, forests and a windmill. They had very little contact with the outside world, and their young women came to Ozarow only rarely. On the other hand, we came across the Sakhalin boys in our streets more frequently. They would be there to deliver their limestone, their sacks of flour and their potatoes.
The Sakhalin community had a minyan, (quorum of 10 Jewish men), so daily services were possible. Still, for the most important holidays, they would come to the Ozarow synagogue. For marriages, they would invite the Ozarow rabbi, a few chassidim and the beadle, all of whom were brought in carts freshly cleaned and lined with a carpet of soft straw for the occasion.
The only one who couldn't find a place for himself in Sakhalin was Yankel, the son of the owner of the mill. So he became an expatriate in Ozarow, where he formed solid friendships with other young people of his own age.
When the war broke out, all the Jews from the surroundings abandoned their property in order to flow into Ozarow. It was thus that Yankel, his sister Dyna and their parents came to stay, for better or worse, with Blind Ephraim in the hope of surviving the war. To survive the war! The days and weeks stretched out interminably. Poor Dyna was a real country girl and could not get used to life in a big town, so while many other girls from Sakhalin quickly made friends, she didn't.
This family did not escape the big roundup of September 3, 1942. So it was thus that 24 hours later I met Dyna in the labour camp, assigned to a machine in the same workshop as me. As for Yankel, his task was to move a heavy cart of materials from morning to night. This at least allowed him to see his sister several times a day. From time to time his cargo was cauldrons of soup or garbage cans. He would then always manage to scrape out a bowlful for Dyna.
The days became more dismal, the nights longer and colder. Yankel still wore his old tchaptches on his feet, worn out slippers patched up
and held together with rags. To protect himself from the cold, he lined his tattered clothes with old papers.
One day, the production foreman, a certain Henschel, noticed Yankel's pitiful state. Why do you wear these rags and old papers? he asked. He took down his number and assured him that the next day he would have what he needed. I was able to pass on the good news to Dyna immediately, and she wept for joy to hear it. She confided, Yes of course, he wasn't always nice to me, and he preferred to leave us to become a tailor in town. Do you think he might have thought to take me into town from time to time? Never! Not even to see a soccer match. Here, at least, he acts like a brother. He shares everything he has, and I can see him every day. If he ever gets shoes and clothes, I too will be less cold. After all, he's all that I have left. She tried to smile, but her eyes brimmed with tears.
One night, as we were heading back to our barracks after work, we were ordered to halt before the SS squad and the Ukrainians. Some of us, those in the worst condition, were pulled from the ranks. Yankel was one of them. Now we understood why the production foreman had been so eager to help him. The last words he uttered were for his sister: Let her be brave and carry on alone! As he was marched away, he handed me his ancient tchaptches. For her, he said.
The next day someone else was pushing the cart in the workshop, and Dyna immediately noticed her brother's absence. Frantic with worry, she questioned me; but the lump in my throat was too big to let me answer her. When I handed her Yankel's pathetic last gift, she understood. She pressed her brother's shoes against her breast.
A few days later she would join him in death.
At the beginning of 1945, the pincer-like offensive of the Allied and Soviet troops trapped the Germans, sounding the death knell of the Nazi regime. Poland was soon rid of foreign domination, but its appalled liberators discovered horrors on its soil which no one could have imagined and which had names: Auschwitz, Maidanek, Treblinka....
They went through many cities and towns which had until recently had large Jewish communities, but now there were no Jews to be found. Yet, a few rare survivors came out of their hiding places and crossed the barbed wire of their concentration camps.
That was the case with Maurice Gryner who had lived in Paris since 1935, and who had been deported to Auschwitz from there in 1943. By chance he survived and he was freed by the Soviet troops in February 1945. As soon as he could, he set out for Ostrowiec and Ozarow in the hope of finding some family members or friends.
Alas, Ozarow did not have a single living Jew. As if that pain weren't great enough, he also had to endure the incredulous greeting of any Poles whom he met: Jeszcze zyjesz? You're still alive? For Maurice Gryner there was no doubt. He was not welcome in his own town of Ozarow. Several other young survivors from the camp at Tchenstochowa came to Ozarow, but the reception they received was such that they immediately got out.
Shejwa, the daughter of Itzchak-Chaim Borenstein, who had owned the mill situated on the Zawiechost Road, came back to Ozarow for a day in August 1945. To enter the town, she came by the Jasice Road. Alas, she never reached the train station. She was found beside the road, strangled with her own scarf. According to the information I was able to gather when I passed through Ozarow on August 31, 1945, only a few days after her death, the murderer was a man called Osmenda. In 1942, after the deportation of the Ozarow Jews, he had taken possession of the Borenstein mill. He must have spotted Shejwa removing a few objects from a hiding place at the mill, and then followed her to the edge of the village where he savagely attacked her.
After my own liberation, I too decided to go back to Ozarow. To tell the truth, I did not harbour any hope of finding any member of my
family alive, but I thought that maybe I could gather some information about their tragic fate. On the train we were several survivors in the same circumstances. We had been warned to avoid the Armja Krajowa, a nationalist faction combatting the new regime which attacked and murdered Jews in cold blood, by going to Lodz instead of to small towns. In Lodz, I discovered several Ozarowers miraculously unharmed. They greeted us warmly; Yoissef Tcheresnia (an officer of the Polish Liberation Army) and Chaskiel Chalman, one of the 120 survivors of the Lodz ghetto. We also met Yocheved Fraiberg and her three children, the oldest of whom was only 12 years old. It was the first time we were able to see such a marvel with our own eyes: the next generation vibrant and carrying the future beside their mother. It was a symbol. Yocheved, her husband Itzchak and their three children had lived in hiding in the country. Only a few weeks before the liberation, Itzchak had left their hiding place in search of food. Unfortunately, he never made it back. Later Yocheved and her children would emigrate to Canada.
|From left, seated: Yocheved Fraiberg Rosenstein, Hillel Adler and Marmel Orenstein;
standing: Leah Rosenstein, age 7, Moshku (Moe) Rosenstein, age 12, Raca (Régine) Adler, Faige Fudim and Srulik (Irving) Rosenstein, age 5. Lodz, August 1945
Not a single Jew left in Ozaow! And the country itself, newly liberated, proved to be more than menacing. In theory, the Polish government respected the rights of its citizens regardless of their religion. But in practice that was not the case. Most of the functionaries had been in place from before the war. They therefore applied, without scruple, the laws of an anti-Semitic regime to which they adhered without reserve. For these clerks of the State, the murder of a Jewish survivor was not fundamentally evil. It certainly did not amount to a crime.
Ethel, the daughter of Moishe Weinryb, was part of our group of Ozarowers. She had suffered the fate of all the survivors: the ghetto, dislocation and internment until her liberation in April 1945. In this hell, she had met a boy who had also survived the concentration camps, Hershel Jakubowicz. The two decided to marry. And the rest of us, overcome by emotion, crowded together to witness the ceremony. Afterwards, no one dared to venture outside the house so late at night for fear of being accosted and killed by the Polish nationalists. We spent the rest of the night stretched out on the floor, just as we had grown accustomed to in the camps.
The marriage of Ethel and Hershel warmed our hearts and took on a symbolic importance. It was as if life was reasserting itself. Ethel and Hershel managed to find a way to emigrate to the United States. And there they remain to this day surrounded by their family.
Poland was a dangerous place immediately after the war. It became necessary to organize ourselves to get out of the country as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the place was so disorganized that departures for the west were made easier.
So I boarded a train at the central station in Lodz, bound for Ozarow. The cars were dilapidated and jam-packed with travellers. I had to climb on board very quickly in order to have a better chance of finding a seat. All of a sudden, a soldier with rifle and bandolier placed his hand on my shoulder. I started, but then immediately recognized him. It was Stasiek Grela, whom I had known since school days! He was doing his military service in Lodz: I'm so happy to see you alive, he offered. When I told him I was on my way to Ozarow, he said, Be very careful. If you must spend the night there, go to my mother's and tell her that we met in Lodz. She lives alone and she will make you welcome! Stasiek found me a seat in a compartment and advised me to sleep. The next morning, I was awakened by an identification control. The
militia scrutinized all the identity cards and detained anyone who appeared suspect. The train got underway again, and I found myself facing a Pole who never stopped looking me over with his protruding eyes. He brusquely broke his silence: How is it that the militia didn't bother to check whether your military status was in order? But of course! Now I get it! You're Jewish! The Bolshevik powers are protecting you. I'll bet that you or others like you disarmed me in Lwow in September 1939 when I was an officer in the Polish army! Beside myself, I replied, I spent the war in a concentration camp, so stop your disgusting accusations! But he wouldn't back off. Prove it to me, he hissed. Show me your papers! I was going to put my hand in my pocket when all of a sudden, the former Polish officer blew his nose, closing his eyes. I thought better of it and profited from the occasion to slip away. At the next stop, as a precaution, I changed cars.
Jasice. The Ozarow station. It was there in September 1942 that I left my village for the labour camp, and it was from there that my relatives made their last journey, to Treblinka.
I crossed the eerily silent meadows of Wyszmontow which were resplendent with a thousand different colours on the eve of the harvest. I entered Ozarow by Kolejowa Street. There was the house where I was born. In a corner of a window I imagined I could still make out my older sister Chava, anxiously looking after me as I left. Three years had gone by since. The market place was almost deserted. A few Poles approached me to talk, wanting to know how I could have survived. I could barely hear what they were saying, for before my eyes there still passed the images of what had so recently occurred in this cursed place. The wailing of our mothers still resounded in my ears.
We left Poland, heading for Germany, now occupied by the Allies, or Czechoslovakia, or Austria, on our way we hoped to the United States, Canada, France or Palestine, and far away from the desolate places of our shattered youth.
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