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

In the Tracks of the Jewish Life That Disappeared

Yakov Handshtok

Yizker-bukh Ryki

Throughout all my wandering I never stopped dreaming of Riki. I wanted badly to see, once again, my hometown, where I had spent my childhood and youth, where I had known joy and sorrow, hoped for better times, and survived the horrible agonies.

And then the day came when I returned from Russia together with my wife. It was the day I'd waited for so long. We were in Warsaw, just a hundred kilometers from Riki. It would have taken too long to wait for a train, and I didn't want to waste a minute. I decided to take a taxi, and after driving for an hour and a half I was in Riki.

I couldn't believe I was already in Riki. After my initial impression I began to regain my bearings and to recognize the town, but I found that I couldn't escape the nagging thought: "Perhaps this isn't Riki? Perhaps I went to a different town by mistake?" I shook the thoughts away. After all, I recognized the shops the Jews had left behind. They were empty. The bright and fine faces of the Jewish men and women who kept shop were no longer there. There was no trace of that lively atmosphere, that warm Jewish life. No, I wasn't lost. It was indeed Riki, the same town, but without its Jews. The soul of the town had been taken. It was as if it had been snuffed out, as if it had died.

It appeared as if the town had been cast back into its original form, as it had been centuries earlier before the Jews arrived, when it was merely a small peasant settlement. The dear, good-hearted people who had once been there were gone. Not one of our pious fathers was left, those men who had carefully observed the holy Sabbath and who had soulfully stretched out the third meal on the afternoon of the Sabbath in order to continue feeling the sanctity of the day.

No longer were there any loyal and committed mothers, the women who waited to light candles on Saturday night until three stars appeared in the sky, until they had first murmured in the quiet gathering darkness the prayer, "God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, protect your beloved people Israel from all evil . . ."

Until this very day I remember the words of my mother's heartfelt prayer. Her prayers didn't help. The most dreadful wrath was poured out upon His beloved people, Israel. After a while I began to hear again the screaming, muttering, and moaning of the Jews when they were taken toward Deblin; the whole way was strewn with those who had been tortured and shot.

Crucifixes and Christian Images

Actually the destruction of the town shouldn't have been a surprise to me. As early as '43, when I saw the town for the last time, the houses had already been burnt and destroyed. Throughout sleepless nights I saw myself going through the ruins and mourning the death of all my relatives and close friends. Yet now, as I stood in the middle of the marketplace, the wounds opened up afresh. I felt broken, and my heart wept inside me. My eyes sought a familiar face, but the rare passersby were all strangers. I looked inside the houses where Jews had once lived. Now crucifixes and Christian icons hung on the walls.

When I reached the location of the building that had once been the synagogue and had now been transformed into a grain warehouse, my heart felt chilled. My thoughts flew back to the town as it had been years before, during the holidays, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, when the synagogue had been full of congregants praying for a year of health, livelihood, and peace. The women stood praying in their own section upstairs. My throat was suddenly constricted. I leaned against a wall and wept. It seemed to me that I heard my own voice calling to the Jews of Riki all over the world not to forget, not to forgive the Hitlerites for the spilled blood of our martyrs and the destruction of our homes.

My feet led me to the study house, but there, too, everything was wasted and ruined. All of the gravestones had been ripped out and used for paving. There wasn't a trace of a stone over which I could weep my heart out remembering the pure souls, telling them that the world was no longer what it had once been, that Jews had their own country surrounded by enemies, but that Jewish boys fought heroically and their bravery was admired throughout the entire world.

For a long time I stayed at the vandalized cemetery. There was no trace left of the generations of holiness that the Jews of Riki had invested in this site.

The Scream of Frightful Slaughter

Lost in these sorrowful thoughts, I returned through the dead streets. The stones, the houses, everything screamed the scream of the most frightful slaughter the murderers could invent. A few passersby looked at me with furtive hostility. In their eyes and their faces I read their suspicion: What's he looking for here, the Jew? Did he come here to demand a reckoning for the crimes that more than one of the present residents has on his conscience?

I too looked at the residents searchingly: perhaps I would come across a familiar face, someone who might repeat to me the story of all the horrors that this place had seen. I felt so alone, and I needed someone beside me, to help me shake off the horror of those days, to help me cry out, to shout . . .

I sought out the home of Tadek Stec, a Pole of whom I retained good memories. During the hardest times that we suffered in the ghetto he had displayed noble humanity. He used to smuggle food into the Schelling camp. His mother used to cook an entire bucket of soup, bring it to the gate, and quickly leave. She knew that she was risking her life.

Now, as I walked toward their home, I remembered Leybl Leydman, whom I had met at their home together with the young girl Rivke Lerner. The situation didn't permit them to remain hidden for very long, and later they were taken to the Deblin camp. Leybl was one of those who later armed themselves and escaped from the camp, but he was shot on the way.

On the way I stood near my grandfather's house. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the trees my father had planted. I remembered when they were young and thin. Now they had grown out, their branches stretched broadly and they were covered with leaves. I wanted to go into the house, sit down for a while, absorb the weeping of the walls, and watch the reaction of the Poles who lived there now when I reminded them who the previous owners had been, who had built the house and planted the trees, and who had died so frightfully and tragically.

I clearly realized how apathetically they would react. After all, they all knew this had been a Jewish town.

One of the Righteous Gentiles

Here I was at Tadek's house. He was sleeping. His daughter heard me waking him and ran in from the kitchen in terror. Seeing how glad her father was to see me, she stood in astonishment, finally calmed down and went out.

Tadek was profoundly moved by the encounter. He remembered the times that will never come again, neither the times nor the people . . . Never would the life of the town be as it once was, when the Jews were there and the town seethed and bubbled with work and commerce.

I thought: Is Tadek the only Pole in town who knows how to mourn the destruction?

He continued talking. "It's so strange, isn't it? To live in such a town, where one still feels and sees each day everything these people built with their own hands, and which they had to leave behind, and . . . not a single one of them is left . . . Who could have imagined it? I could have done a great deal more, I could have hidden more Jews . . . We were so terrified that we became apathetic, we calmly watched the Jews being tortured, watched them being taken away to be slaughtered."

His voice was almost hysterical: "Yes, yes, everyone knew the Jews were being taken to their deaths, and we did nothing to rescue them, we watched it as if they were dogs, not people with whom we had lived for decades."

I replied, "For hundreds of years, nearly a thousand."

Tadek nodded his head. "You're right. We sinned against the Jews and against God. You think people don't know. More than one Christian has said to me that he's terrified of the punishment which may be coming . . . It's true, it could yet come, it could."

A look of terror crossed his face.

Terror of Revenge

I sensed the same terror in the words of another Pole, Janek Burek, who still remembered me from the times when he'd worked for my grandfather. He was born and raised among Jews, and he spoke Yiddish. During our conversation he mentioned names of Jews among whom he'd lived. He sighed repeatedly: "Yes, such good people, why did this happen to them? Ah, God will punish us severely for our failure to rescue them . . ."

At some moments I was doubtful whether the words came from his heart; perhaps he was just trying to guess my thoughts? Yet later on as I walked around, and all the next day in town, I heard several anecdotes about various misfortunes that had been suffered by certain Christian townspeople in the past few years. This one's ram had gone mad and trampled the man's daughter; another one had shattered his hand with an ordinary nail, and the hand had to be amputated . . . The Christians saw this as punishment for the sins they'd committed against the Jews. "Who knows how many more disasters still await us," an elderly Christian murmured as if to himself, "the horseshoes we placed on the doorframes didn't help. There are evil spirits in town, and they want to take revenge."

I was most deeply impressed by the poverty of Tadek's home. He was a barber by trade, but no one can earn a living in Riki that way anymore. I used to send him packages of clothing and other goods, which he sold. He used the money to buy seeds and seedlings of various fruit trees. He planted these in his garden, and they helped him earn a living. He was infinitely grateful, but I knew that whatever we did wasn't enough to pay back this noble person for everything he had done and all the risks he had taken during the dangerous times.

Jewish Eyes

The second day of my visit to Riki had arrived. I walked around with my camera, recording for posterity the streets and houses that had once belonged to Jews and that remained baked into my heart. Little groups of children and adults followed behind me, looking at me as if at a miraculous evil portent. A militiaman came and detained me, leading me away to the militia headquarters, where they took my camera, removed the film, and developed the pictures. When they didn't find anything suspicious, I was taken to the commandant, who politely asked me where I was from and what I was doing in Riki. He listened attentively and I saw that every minute he was becoming more and more interested in what I had to say about Israel. After a short while his eyes began to light up and it began to be evident to me that those were Jewish eyes, his Aryan appearance nothing more than a mask. He was one of the thousands of Jews who were still living in Poland behind Aryan masks.

Evening fell, and once again I strolled through the half-dead streets. All of my senses were alert and open, and I listened to every rustle. Perhaps somewhere there was still left a trace of that warm and bustling Jewish life. Through the open windows I heard voices, laughter and weeping, but all of that belonged to distant, alien, and cold people. I had the strange feeling that they, the Poles, still couldn't get used to living on earth soaked through with Jewish blood, inside walls from which still emanate the terror of Jewish souls hovering in the air. The Gentiles move here like shadows, off to one side of life. Deep inside them dwells a sense of guilt toward the Jews whom they robbed, whose houses they have inherited.

The words branded themselves into my brain: "Jewish Riki is no more, no more!"

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