The River Disappeared and with it the Jews
G. Tcharnezai-Shaiak (Melbourne)
Translated by Esther Snyder
The heavens were not closed in by angels, and the dead were killed by the bullets of murderers, cities became torches and ashes covered the living.
The ancient river Bzura, the left tributary of the Visla, passed through the Mazovia plain and curled like a silver tongue; on its right bank was situated the old city of Lowicz.
The fertile land of the plain was covered with abundant grass and pasture for the many flocks of sheep and cattle.
For more than eight hundred years, reaching back to the early Piast dynasty, a settlement existed here on the banks of the river that even in olden times constituted a barrier against the attacks of the rival tribes on the town without walls. This was a town of bishops and was the private property of the Mazovian princes. Lowicz was a town without walls and was never surrounded by fortifications like other towns in those days.
Already in very early times, defeated foreign armies settled here, trying to cross the watery boundary in an effort to reach deeper into the country on their way to the gates of Warsaw.
The early residents built their town near the river on an outlet of the bank that had two huge arms that reached deep into the land and thus created two natural islands and a defense point.
The ancient chronicles recount that the invading Swedish regiments of Karl Gustav the Tenth, and later those of Karl the Twelfth were stopped by the river, the same thing occurred to the Moskals. The forces of Hindenburg suffered similar problems on their march to Warsaw in 1914.
The identical impediment occurred during Hitler's Blitzkrieg. The armored units of General Brauchitz were also impeded by the Bzura River, which blocked his wild race in the early days of September, 1939.
After bitter battles, when Hitler's forces managed to conquer the town on September 9, 1939, entire sections of the town were wiped off the face of the earth from the unrelenting bombing and cannon fire.
For many days, the sky was covered with clouds of smoke rising from smoking wood and fires that hadn't been extinguished. The air was full of choking steam and odors.
After a while, the Nazi strategists investigated the topography around the river near the town in order to reveal the reason for their failure and the heavy losses incurred in the battle by the armored regiments.
An order was given: 'Lampt' the river ! That is, to cut off the two arms/branches that wound around the center of the town, for a few parasangs (an ancient unit of length) from the east and west on the periphery.
This largest and most important strategy was imposed in trust on the Jewish population (in trust were just empty words).
The Jewish population of Lowicz was made up mainly of Hasidim, retailers and craftsmen in addition to a large section with no defined occupation, and a jobless intelligentsia. There were no technicians nor engineers and they had never worked the land nor were experienced in building canals.
Nevertheless, due to the draconian decree of the Nazis, the Jewish population of Lowicz had to pull together to perform the difficult mission involving the strenuous physical work needed to execute the complex project of regulating the Bzura River. It was necessary to block the natural flow of the river into its channels and to divert it toward the fields.
This happened in the early spring of 1940, with the establishment of the ghetto in Lowicz, the first in the Warsaw guberna. The organization of an internal ghetto police was imposed on the Judenrat (Jewish Council), and the forced labor began.
Three hundred Jews worked every day on this project. These Jewish slaves lived on a tiny ration of 200 grams of bread per day, in addition to portion of watery soup. Starving and exhausted from the incredibly difficult labor, the Jews faced the unrestrained natural force of the fast flowing river without any equipment.
Despite a plague that broke out and depleted the number of workers day by day, this was an insufficient reason for the Nazi murderers to slow down the labor or stop it.
The German gendarme found others to fill the thinned ranks of laborers aided by the ghetto police, which was headed by a non-local young man named Naiman Makolo. It took more than four months to build the huge dirt mound that diverted the original direction of the river.
Simultaneously, heaps of dirt grew, as did the numbers of those that died from the inhumane work and hard conditions.
The project continued until the Kotnay Bridge slowly disappeared at the foot of the ancient castle of the Biskofim, and the quiet hum/song of the waters slowly stopped and was silenced.
Thus, the Jewish workers/slaves of Lowicz built a dirt barricade that was five meters high and six parasangs long. It went from the Kotney bridge until the Kapitoli water station, past the Mostovoi bridge. Next to it was a sidewalk paved with the gravestones of their ancestors.
In those days, the Jews of Lowicz didn't imagine the cynical abuse that blind fate held for them. Before their final path to annihilation, they were ordered to put up with their own hands a memorial monument to themselves that would stand for future generations. They were forced to pave the area at the foot of this monument with thousands of gravestones of their forefathers.
With the disappearance of the lively river whose springs fertilized the surrounding fields, so also disappeared another living and fertile spring the Jewish community that lived and was productive here for many generations.
And nothing remained of it.
Reuven Weintrob (Bnai Brak)
Translated by Esther Snyder
Warsaw at the end of 1941. Alone and solitary the ghetto was fading and dying. The sea of destruction rose and gathered in its lustful flow chunks of the body of a people that was disintegrating, sentenced to annihilation. Lowicz, a small town on the Bzura river, the left tributary of the Visla, was also swept away by the mighty flow into this terrible whirlpool. Bereavement and loss, dread and the shadow of death wherever you turn, like skeletons in nightmares, the Jews go about as ghosts and their eyes full of terror and destruction.
Solitary and lonely, caught in the claws of death, the ghetto was dying, day by day, hour by hour. There is no hope or expectation.
However, there were a few who summoned the courage to flee, who succeeded in crossing over the wall but even there danger awaited them in the searching, suspicious, murderous eyes of the gentiles. And then they would find themselves in even greater danger.
I was a 16 year old lad exiled with my family and others of the holy Jewish community of Lowicz to the Warsaw ghetto. We came to the ghetto thin and undernourished and things became even worse. The terrible sights around us, our desperate situation with growing hunger and distress, left no doubt in our hearts that one day soon our fate would be that of our brothers. Then, my mother Haya-Sara, of blessed memory, came to the firm decision that we must flee the ghetto with our last strength, as long as we are still alive, no matter the consequences. From the decision, to the plan and the flight. It's hard to imagine today how courageous was this decision and how much risk was involved. Nevertheless, with careful planning, various stratagems, ingenuity, intelligence and total commitment, my mother succeeded in smuggling our family out of the walls of the ghetto.
The night we escaped we couldn't sleep at all and were full of fear and terror of the unknown awaiting us outside the ghetto. Full of anxiety yet hopeful we waited for early morning. We had a small bag with some gold valuables a watch, etc. - the remnant of our last meager possessions. At dawn, we left our little corner on Ostrovska Street.
Dawn. A disquieting deadly silence wrapped in secret. The ghetto was sunk in a deep sleep. The sound of crying hungry babies emerged from the cellars. The ghetto had not yet awakened to the suffering of the day and the distress of hunger. Only the pale moon in the sky and the early rays of the sun as if shy and embarrassed saw five souls walking slowly, close to the walls of the houses, towards the wall lit with lights shining above the guard stations.
Our group progressed toward the lion's mouth. Our hearts were beating wildly. In the gloom before sunrise we see clearly two figures near the ghetto gate which was on Zlezna Street corner of Holodna. The terror increases and the senses are numb. One of the figures is a Jewish policeman, recognizable by his uniform. Although we have our suspicions, we have no choice but to speak with him. Mother gives us a sign and we disappear into one of the nearby yards. We must wait for a signal will it come? Or maybe ?..... My heart refuses to guess. Mother slowly approaches the guard with the small bag in her hands, signaling to him to approach her. We follow her every move with a heart full of fear and anxiety about her fate. Will she succeed? Or perhaps we may never see her again.
From afar we can see there is negotiation between Mother and the guard who is also trying to send her away. Mother's simple hand movement toward the guard indicates that she is pleading and begging for her life. Finally, the guard is apparently swayed by the sight of the small treasure sparkling from the bag. The guard changes his mind and tells her to step back and wait until he tells the German about the bundle and its contents, all the while ignoring our hiding near the gate of the courtyard. When the Jewish guard takes hold of the bundle, he goes quickly to the German gatekeeper. The tension and anticipation are great and every moment seems to last forever. We are extremely anxious for Mother's well-being. After a few minutes the Jewish guard returns and approaches Mother signaling that the deal succeeded, although his words reveal his doubt and lack of confidence. From afar we see the sign to approach. Is it possible? Have they set a trap for us, and as soon as we come near the gate they will shoot all of us? In my wild imagination, in my mind I already picture us strewn shot dead near the wall as the devilish laugh of the Nazi soldier, who led us astray, echoes in the air and breaks the silent darkness. However while still imagining this nightmare, we huddle together while standing near the gate. Is this the gate of death or the gate of salvation? The Jewish guard gives the signal when the German guard leaves his post for a moment. Despite hazy thoughts of the terror of death we find ourselves outside the gate. Goaded by the policeman, we quickly leave the area and soon are engulfed by the pedestrians outside the wall, among the early rising workers and to the wonder of many who see a small group of Jews outside the ghetto accompanied by a policeman.
And we are really outside the ghetto. Not a magic trick or hallucination and hope beats in our hearts. Maybe despite everything we will succeed in saving our lives. However, many dangers still lurk outside, due to the prying eyes of the Poles and Germans that could thwart our escape plan at any moment.
Excited and thrilled but encouraged, we quickly seek a quiet place in one of the side streets so as not to arouse any undue attention. We wait with tense anticipation for morning when the streets will be full of people so we can melt into the flowing crowd as we try to make our way to Praga on the other side of the Visla.
On one of the busy streets, when we were suddenly panic-stricken and fearful that we would be recognized by the passersby, our father, Akiva zl, disappeared and was never found again.
From then on, our path and wanderings were long, difficult and full of dangers. We made our way on circuitous, difficult roads, filled with terror and horror, going from one town to the next without a clear plan or goal.
In the city of Ostrowitz, where we found ourselves after a long and arduous journey, my mother, Haya-Sara and my brothers, Menahem and Shlomo met the same fate as the other Jews of our community. They went with them on a path from which they never returned.
Five of us escaped from the Warsaw ghetto and I alone remained.
May their memory be blessed.
Translated by Esther Snyder
These are the introductory words to excerpts from the book, Anshei Mahteret, People in the Underground.
Gedalyahu Shaiak from Lowicz arrived at the Bialystok ghetto in 1941. When Hitler's brigades broke through and invaded Russia, many of the Jewish youth tried to flee to the east, deep into Russian territory; Gedalyahu Shaiak was one of them. However, quite soon many returned to the conquered territories. The fighting front passed them by and they weren't able to reach it. Gedalyahu returned and arrived in Bialystok. Immediately upon his arrival in the ghetto he found his friends from the Hashomer Hatzair movement. After a few months he was already involved with Underground activities as one of four friends from the movement's leadership. Gedalyahu served a central role in all the preparations for the armed rebellion making weapons in the ghetto, testing them, and practicing within the framework of the fighters' cells. He was also involved in smuggling weapons into the ghetto from the Aryan side of the city. As part of the camouflaged role that was forced on him by the Underground, wearing a hat of the ordnongs-dinst, he took part in almost every daring operation carried out by the Underground, in order to acquire weapons from the Germans, to carry them from one place to another and to hide them. He also played an active role in operations relating to the organization of a Jewish Partisan unit in the Bialystok forests.
Gedalyahu Shaiak was executed by the Nazis together with another 71 fighters who were at the center of the rebellion of the Bialystok ghetto when it was destroyed in August, 1943.
* * *
That summer the Underground decided to send one of our men to infiltrate the police. We chose Gedalyahu . I had never seen Gedalyahu as unhappy and unwilling as on that day. Gedalyahu wore a dark blue hat that had written on it (empty space.)
Although he didn't want to take on the job, he obeyed. Thanks to him we found out many things about the police, about Jewish criminals, about the demands of the Germans, and mainly about the behavior of the various public representatives and their relations with the Germans. These matters were considered very important to us. We wanted to know who were the agitators, who were the profiteers and who were the traitors. It was easy for a policeman to walk around at night, to pass information, to communicate on days of curfew and sometimes to help in leaving and entering the ghetto the hat and the stick provided cover for every deed. However, Gedalyahu was apparently the only policeman or perhaps one of just a few in the ghetto who didn't use his club against a Jew.
The air of friendship strengthens weak hands and serves as a shield against low spirits. This friendship had a special charm, a charm without expressing one's feelings, yet improving spirits. Gedalyahu's way was to say what was in his heart. The candidness, the talent to expose the depths of others as well as his own secrets, brought him friends and admirers without limit even among the Communists. At that time the Communists were partners in the activities of the fighting Underground and preparations for the armed rebellion in the ghetto. Gedalyahu could say anything and no one would be insulted, not his close friends and not his allies. The masculine restrained friendship didn't displace the quiet worry for a friend. In the winter Gedalyahu fell ill with pneumonia, then coughed through the summer with a sharp, restrained cough. He hid his handkerchief so no one would see the dark spittle that was dark brown or red. We pleaded with him to visit the doctor but he vehemently refused. When we didn't stop, he walked like a silent angry shadow, but still didn't go to the doctor. Zorah decided to trick him and made an appointment with a doctor for a certain time and I brought Gedalyahu to a supposed meeting with representatives of the Communists. When he saw that it was the house of the doctor, he was insulted but agreed to be examined and receive medicine. We never repeated this visit. Gedalyahu accepted this act of friendship in silence but with appreciation.
* * *
The ghetto was already asleep and we both walked around the streets. He, Gedalyahu the policeman, with a machine gun under his arm, and I walked next to him. How can I describe the happiness that engulfed our group? What can I say about the trembling hands that released the instrument from its ties and from the paper that held its cold metal that we stared at with sparkling eyes? Can I describe Gedalyahu's shaking hands as he held the package? I knew that his hands weren't shaking from the fear of failure but rather from the happiness of the forthcoming revenge. Looking forward to the battle from which we wouldn't leave with empty hands. This trembling of his hands still lives within me and will continue to live in me forever.
It was a quivering from the depths, a trembling caused by the desire for freedom. I will remember your faces Avremil, Zorah, Gedalyahu , Frank and Edek, as you stood around the weapon as if it were a living, precious creature, that is now laying helpless, but tomorrow it will arise and live, killing and destroying those who hate life.
Gedalyahu's campaign to acquire weapons. For days, we searched for a source of weapons, and after a few days we found one. At night Gedalyahu searched that house.
When this policeman appeared, the Jewish profiteer brought out his weapons. These were rifles that only we would use. For the Jew the guns were a business but for us it was for war. The lack of talent to transfer a weapon from the profiteer to a fighter was indecent. Gedalyahu was not lacking this talent. History will properly judge him and those who sent him.
* * *
This night will be a sleepless one. We all want to see how the grenade will explode and spray deathly shrapnel. The decision was cruel - it fell to Koba and Gedalyahu to throw the grenade. Gedalyahu himself will try the weapon, Gedalyahu the policeman. Under his protection, he will bring Koba to the garden late at night during the hours of curfew in the ghetto. Both Gedalyahu and Koba will be the happiest of all of us that night. We lay down and waited for the results.
The explosions came one after the other, far away and unclear but very strong.
After a few minutes Gedalyahu appeared, walking quietly on his toes, sneaking into the room, getting closer to us and falling on the bed. We don't see his face but it was as if we heard his smile and the gleam in his eyes. He lit the room with his flashlight and a dark light fell on one of his hands, on his bleeding little finger. Gedalyahu ! What happened? we whispered in fright. Its nothing, I just got a little hurt, I held the grenade in my hand a quarter of a second too long but I managed to throw it and it blew up amazingly. That same night he brought us shrapnel to see. The ghetto slept as usual but in our room there was joy and happiness. The next day people whispered that Soviet airplanes dropped bombs on the German army that was close by.
* * *
In these last days another thing happened that shocked us. A group of 5 7 people, headed by Gedalyahu, were sent to the forest. Gedalyahu performed many functions during this summer, and we had very few weapons. Only when the united front was formed and we were able to acquire some weapons did we decide to send Gedalyahu to lead the group. When they reached the camp they were ordered to return because they wouldn't be accepted without weapons. Gedalyahu tried to dissuade them but he knew when to obey and therefore he returned to the ghetto. Gedalyahu was angry and complained, Listen, even now they don't treat the rebellion in the ghetto seriously.
* * *
Gedalyahu was in the group of 72 members who were in the bunker on Kamilna Street. Due to traitorous acts, the Germans discovered the bunker, surrounded it, and forced them all out, except for one who survived. All the 71 people were led to their death after a forceful clash. Jews who were hiding nearby in attics saw the heroic and lifting scene. It was a shocking day in the ghetto for the Jews who were still sitting in their hiding places.
There were 71. All of them young, all of them handcuffed, all of them barefoot and all of them with heads held high. No one pleaded, no one asked for mercy, no one showed signs of weakness, and with pride they ascended the gallows. Gedalyahu was one of the first to ascend. In this manner the fighting partisan was killed by the Nazi enemy. Gedalyahu Shaiak from Lowicz.
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