In reality the Jewish community of Zhirardov hasn't existed for twenty years, since the Zhirardov Jews were expelled to the Warsaw Ghetto. From there the majority were taken to the Treblinka death factory, while the rest died either in the ghetto or in other locations. Nevertheless the symbolic remains of the community--the synagogue and the cemetery--were left like a monument to the catastrophe. Now, during my visit to Poland in the month of November 1960, these two symbols have been destroyed as well.
The field where the cemetery was located still exists, along with a few of the stones; but the fence has been taken down. The goats freely graze in the field. It is only a question of time whether the solitary gravestones will last much longer.
The synagogue: it is bound up with so many childhood memories for everyone, including myself. This is where I began to learn the alphabet. Two of my neighbors were Hebrew teachers. One of them was Alter Shakher (Ertel), who later became the last watchman at the cemetery; the other was Itshe-Meir Rodziner. Before I was five years old they took me to the Talmud Torah, which was located in the synagogue yard. There I was introduced to the mysteries of the little letters.
All of these memories came back to me on that gloomy afternoon in November 1960 when I approached the synagogue. When I arrived at Synagogue Street my heart felt a tug once again. My steps became smaller and I began to approach more slowly. The gate was still intact, and the verse carved at its top could still clearly be read: "I have set the Lord before me always. The front of the eastern wall was already filled with holes.
I entered the synagogue yard and there the entire disaster became apparent to me. The western wall as well as the northern and southern walls were half collapsed.
Two Polish workers were engaged in tearing down the walls. I tried to photograph the scene, but one of the workers called to the other, "Yanek, step away. You don't want your picture to show up in the foreign newspapers." Sensing the uncomfortable situation, he said to me, "I don't know why they're tearing down the synagogue. It would have been better to set up a museum."
Unfortunately, the photographs didn't come out. It was too dark, both inside and outside the synagogue.
On the inside walls and on the ceiling, which was still intact, portions of the beautiful murals done in our synagogue in the thirties remained. Portions of the verses and prayers, which had been artistically inscribed on the walls, were still visible: over there, "How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob ; here, "Song of Ascents. . . ."
As if in a daze I wandered through the ruins of the synagogue. . . . I wondered to myself by what "merit" I had deserved to be the last Jew to see the traces of this ruined epigone of the holy Temple. . . .
Yitskhok Lifshits told me that the city council had longtime plans to set up a warehouse in the synagogue. He had constantly refused, telling them: "Either turn it into a museum, or let it collapse of its own accord." And that's what actually happened--the synagogue began to collapse of its own accord. Then they decided to pull it down in order to avoid a potential disaster.
I had gone to Poland to visit relatives who live in Lodz. Of course I couldn't go to Poland without visiting my hometown of Zhirardov. I knew that Yitskhok Lifshits and his wife (who isn't from Zhirardov) still lived in Zhirardov. I also knew that Tsirl Koyfman was living there with her Polish husband, Losica, who had saved Tsirl, as well as Freydl Musk, who is now in Israel. I let Yitskhok know by telephone that I was coming. Of course, he invited me very warmly.
As I approached Zhirardov by train I immediately felt the alienation. I saw that my hometown was not mine. The platform had changed, but the station was the same. Yet there was not a familiar face to be seen. No one paid any attention to me. No one waited for me. No one imagined that I was a native returning to my home town. No one was interested.
I entered the city and began walking forward. Vayntroyb's Restaurant once stood opposite the station. I walk toward it. The restaurant is the same, actually enlarged a bit by breaking through the wall to the neighboring shop. But the Vayntroybs aren't there, not one of them is to be seen . . .
I turn right, into Sienkiewicz Street. My sister Dvoyre and her husband, Leybl Funtovitsh lived, there with their little daughter. I approach No. 11. The house had belonged to Mendl Levkovitsh. The sign on the door hangs there just as it had twenty years ago. It reads: "Owner of house M. Levkovitsh." Sadly, it is no more than a memento, a trace, recalling the catastrophe. Yes, the house stands, but its owner Mendl is no longer there, nor are his neighbors: my sister and brother-in-law; Margulis; one of Avrom Ziskind's sons, and their families . . .
I didn't have the courage to go into the house to speak with the new residents. What would have been the sense of it? I went on.
I returned to Przejazd Street, the street leading from the train station to May 1 Street. Now it is called Defenders of Stalingrad Street. I enter the town. The street is the same. The houses are the same.
I turn onto May 1 Street and look into Tufman's store. Not one face of the Tufman family is to be seen. They aren't there. I went to Kozienitsky's house. In front was the wooden house, beyond was a large brick building. My second sister, Perele, lived in the brick building with Funtovitsh, her husband, and their daughter. The last rabbi of Zhirardov also lived there, Rabbi Yakov-Dovid Kalish, the son of the Amshinover Rebbe, himself the last Amshinover Rebbe. Many Jews had lived there, and now I saw none of them.
I arrived at the front yard of Yoysef Koyfman's house. The house is still standing. The first empty lot I saw was at the site of Simkhele Rozenholts's house. The wooden house had been torn down. The recently constructed brick bakery still stands.
I stopped next to Itshe-Leyzer Nisberg's house. Ruven Sobol's barbershop had stood there. There's a barbershop with a similar sign there now, but the owners are different. . . . A sign still hangs on the house, reading: "No. 19 May 1 Street, owned by Y.L. Nisnberg."
I saw dozens of such signs still hanging on various houses. Evidently the Germans, may their names be obliterated, didn't worry about such minor details and allowed them to remain. Now they stand as a trace left after the catastrophe. I approached my birthplace, the house of the smith. It is no longer there. It has been torn down. The threshold of our store remains. The brick offices and the room where I was born. Here again I didn't enter; what for?
Thus I wandered through street after street. I walked, looked, saw people working. They were paving Commerce Street with cobblestones, just like twenty-five years before. No one came to ask me, "Jew, what are you doing here?" People passed me without interacting.
I went to see Tsirl Koyfman, because Yakov Lifshits was still at work and I wanted to meet someone whom I knew and who knew me too. She was expecting me, because Lifshits had told her I was coming.
It is hard for me to describe how friendly she was and how warmly she greeted me. We spoke about everything and everyone.
She prepared a homey, Jewish lunch. There was fresh and stuffed fish, dumplings in chicken broth, and a roast goose. All of the dishes had the taste of the Jewish Zhirardov that used to be.
Of course every conversation centered on recalling the bitter times of the recent past. Her husband and his mother related anecdotes from those times: how Tsirl had left the Warsaw Ghetto and hidden at their home in Miedziborow, later joined by Freydl Musk. For saving two Jewish souls, placing their entire family's lives in the danger, these people deserve to be reckoned among the righteous Gentiles.
In the evening we went to see Lifshits. Yitskhok Lifshits lives in his own house, which he built shortly before the war. He has a job as a government official, and he is the "Jewish address" in Zhirardov. He is the "Jewish community organization" in Zhirardov. If a Jew needs some official paper from Zhirardov, he writes to Yitskhok Lifshits and Yitskhok obtains it and forwards it. If a Jew from Zhirardov still living in Poland comes back to town, he sleeps at Yitskhok's house. If there is a child of Zhirardov anywhere in the world, Yitskhok is the person he turns to. Yet how tragic is the fact that Yitskhok has no Polish friends. He lives isolated and cut off, with no friendly contacts except for Tsirl and her Polish husband.
Of course, there was a reception at Yitskhok's house as well, where the Losica family was present. I made a sad joke that all of "Zhirardov Jewry" was present in this one house. There were five of us in all: Yitskhok and his wife; Losica the Pole with his wife Tsirl; and I . . .
I was cheered to hear how Tsirl also remains strongly bound to Jewishness. She told me that she, the only Jewish woman living in town, had traveled to Warsaw with Yitskhok and his wife to go to the synagogue for the High Holidays, where they had prayed and fasted.
I am very distant from religious observance, yet this moved me deeply, because for these people who are cut off from the Jewish world, the only tie to Jewishness is the observance of the High Holidays. In their situation they have no other opportunity to express their connection to Jews.
We spent the evening sharing memories of the past. I told them about life in Israel and about relatives and friends from Zhirardov. Losica was particularly interested in the problems of Jews in Israel. It is hard for a Pole to imagine Jews becoming agricultural and industrial workers.
The next morning I went to the field where the Jewish cemetery used to be. That's what Jews do, they go to visit the graves of their ancestors. I have already described the current state of the cemetery. On the way I passed the Aliza Orzeszkowa Elementary School, where Jewish children had studied before the war. The name remains, but the Jewish children are gone . . .
From the cemetery I made my way through the fields to the streets leading to Miedziborow. I had learned that a woman of Jewish descent was living there as well. She is Naomi Greenberg, a daughter of the Vengroverins. I met her and her Christian husband there. They are building a two-family house for themselves and their married son. She got the money to build the house from her [former] husband, Velvl (Vladek) Grinberg, who lives in Montreal, Canada.
While we were talking, this woman suddenly began to weep as she remembered the past. She admitted that there was no joy in her life. Her children were already grown, and although they know that they are of Jewish ancestry, they no longer have anything to do with Jewishness. The Jewish chain of generations in that family ends with them. The surrounding world is Christian, and there is no connection to Jews. She, too, was glad to have news of Israel and of Jews in general.
Later on I saw the end of the synagogue. I wandered through the streets some more, around the Polish Catholic church, next to the forest, to Millenmakh's tannery and back to Yakov Lifshits's house.
The memories that had come into my consciousness at the synagogue distressed me, and that very same evening I said goodbye to my familiar Jewish friends and to the Losica family, all of whom accompanied me to the train that took me back to Lodz.
As I rode the train I continued thinking about the few Jews remaining in Zhirardov. What strength they had to possess to remain there! I sensed that the Zhirardov chapter had closed for me. I also sensed in the words of the few Jews left that the end was near for them as well.
Before I left Poland I saw Yakov Lifshits in Warsaw once again. When we said goodbye to each other I said to him:
"Yitskhok! Leave all this behind and come live in Israel. You'll earn a good living, and you'll have a better life than here." I must note that they lacked for nothing materially.
Yitskhok, unsentimental as always, answered with a broad yet dry laugh: "We'll see. Meanwhile I'm traveling to France on vacation, to see my younger brother, Yosl." But in the corners of his eyes I saw an odd look and the beginnings of tears. Apparently the thought moved him.
Fate had it otherwise. Further events cruelly changed everything. Two months later came the tragic news that Yitskhok Lifshits had died of a heart attack. He was about fifty-five or fifty-six years old. I was the last Zhirardov Jew, a visitor from overseas, to see him alive.
Our friend and fellow townsman Leybl Tiger flew from Paris to Poland for the funeral together with Yitskhok's brother Yosl. Tiger pronounced the eulogy. He was buried at the Gesia Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.
Yitskhok Lifshits was the last Jew living in Zhirardov. His death conclusively ended the chapter on "Jews in Zhirardov."
And to me personally fell the bitter fate of being the last to see our hometown--as a witness to the erasure of its last traces, the synagogue and the cemetery--and to speak with the last Jew, before his sudden death.
I was present at the end of the sentence about the history of the Jews in Zhirardov.
Let this leaf find its place in our history filled with blood and pain, which we related in this, our chronicle. Let this closing be found in our symbolic gravestone for our dear hometown and its grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, pious and secular Jews, for the entire Jewish collective.
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