Broken and in mourning, the handful of remaining ones of the Holocaust returned to their destroyed city in the hope of rebuilding their homes that had been destroyed. But the lowly murder of the four survivors by the Poles put the final tombstone onto this dream and convinced all of them that they would not have a revival at all in a Poland that had been turned into a huge graveyard of their loved ones.
by Y. Baharier
Translated by Pamela Russ
[ ] translator's remarks
In connection to the tragic yahrzeit [annual commemorative date] of the destruction of the Jewish community in Ostrowiec, which occurred on Sunday, October 7, a special committee was created to honor those martyrs. The committee was comprised of representatives of all Jewish institutions, such as the Jewish Committee, the religious community, United Committee, and so on, with persons such as Friedental, Goldfinger, Baharier, Zukerfein, Tojman. The committee resolved to declare a public fast, which began on Shabbat, October 6, 1945, in the evening, and ended on Sunday, the first of the month of Cheshvan, at 4 p.m. The committee also resolved to declare a week of mourning from Shabbat, October 6, until Friday the 12th. For the duration of that entire week of mourning, it was obligatory to wear a black band [signifying sorrow] on the arm. It was also prohibited in the course of that week to participate in any form of entertainment.
For this objective, in the location of the union, a handwritten notice was hung up about the program of the tragic yahrzeit (see page 451).
The honoring of the tragic memory was carried out in the following order:
On Shabbat, October 6, there was a memorial service in the temporary place of prayer, where the entire Jewish population was assembled. The chairman of the Jewish Committee, the popular H. Friedental, delivered a great mourning speech [eulogy]. Shabbat at night was very moving, when they recited Eichah [Book of Lamentations recited on the Fast of Tisha b'Av], and Kinnos [mournful prayers also recited on Tisha b'Av], which left a profoundly frightful impact on all those assembled.
On Sunday, at 11 a.m., the entire Jewish population gathered in the [place of the] Jewish Committee, where they formed a manifestation train [procession] that crossed many different streets, until the cemetery. Before the cemetery, where there are family graves of over 800 Jews who perished in one day in a gruesome death, the procession stopped and
various prayers were recited. The chairman of the Jewish religious community, Mr. Goldfinger, recited the Eil moleh rachamim [prayer for the dead], and Rappaport and Griner delivered several eulogies. From the cemetery, the procession went through a row of streets until they reached the sadly wellknown stalag, where three years prior, the entire Jewish population was assembled for transport to Treblinka. At that place, there were also eulogies given by Shtifter and Zukerfein. From there, the procession went to all the places where there were family graves and also to the place of the old, famous shul [synagogue] that was destroyed by the Germans. From there the procession went to the location of the Union where there was a great mourning presentation. These lectures were given as testimonial speeches by Baharier, Goldfinger, Rappaport, HaRav Goldberg, and others. With the Yizkor song [recited for the dead], the session was over with a heavy mood, and with that, the public fast ended [as well].
It is very interesting that the precise adherence of the Ostrowiec Jewry to the declared public fast left a strong impression on our Polish neighbors.
|Those gathered at the Ostrowiec cemetery on the day of the tragic yahrzeit
[anniversary date of the deaths]
To the Remaining [Surviving] Jews in Ostrowiec
Today, Sunday, the first day of the new month of Cheshvan (October 7, 1945), is the date of the tragic yahrzeit [anniversary of the death] of the destruction of the Jewish community in Ostrowiec. The heartrending picture stands before the eyes of each of us, the picture of mothers, fathers, and children who were murdered together. [In] the nightmare of the orgy of the German murderers, who let loose their wild animal instincts onto the innocent Jewish children, Jewish children were beaten by the walls and telegraphic and electric wires; suckling children were torn away by ripping apart their innocent, jerking bodies, from the little feet until their shining eyes. German murderous, booted feet choked tens of hundreds of Jewish children on their throats. It is actually unbelievable that in circumstances, people's animal [behavior] comes out. But sadly, we are witness, we who saw the tragic pictures. We all remember of that time, the beastly elder doctor [Bruno] Motschall [city commissioner of Ostrowiec], Kredel [chief of the German labor office; later chairman of the Judenrat], Lange, Professor Lieutenant Schwartz [chief of Shupo or Shutzpolizei; police guard], and other countless murderers who came to participate in the terrible tragedy, dressed impeccably, all wearing white gloves, preparing everything as for a gala event. For this great slaughter, for this great Jewish tragedy, the German certified doctors did not forget to bring along their elegantly clad wives and women friends. The murdered Jews, our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children, and suckling children, died under the gruesome gaze of the spectators, the elegant men and women of the German gentleman's nation, who delighted in the innocent spilled blood of the Ostrowiec Jews.
The meeting of all the Jewish institutions that took place on Monday, October 1, 1945, decided to proclaim a [memorial] Week of Sorrow in memory of this great tragedy. The week will begin on Shabbat, the eve of the new month of Cheshvan, October 6, 1945, and will end on Friday, the fifth day of Cheshvan, [rest of line and next line hard to read, cut off] of the tragic memory, will take place in the following order:
The Jewish Religious Community
The Jewish Committee
The United Committee
The Commission to Honor the Martyrs
Translated by Pamela Russ
[ ] translator's remarks
It is Sunday, November 27, 1945, in the morning. In a place not far from the Ostrowiec Jewish cemetery, a cargo truck drives by with a casket covered with a red sheet and black crepe. On the side are two military men who are guarding the casket. This is the casket with the bodies of the twelve perished Jewish partisans: Yitzchok Kenig, Meyer Leibish Wartzman, Dudek Groiskop, Shloime Sherman, Reuven Jakubovitch, Abush Kudlovitch, Leibish Mauer, Alek Glat, Yosek Fridland, Motel Weinstok, Kalman Grinberg, and Melech Bronfman.
Behind the casket, follows the city president, K. Buczka; chairman of the city National Council, Novak; representative of the Central Committee of the Jews of Poland, L. Brenner; representative of the Ostrowiec Landsmannschaft [Jewish organization fraternity comprised of people from the same city or region] in Szczeczin, Moshe Kleinman; representative of the publication The New Life Meyer Blankman; representative of the civilian military, all the Ostrowiec Jews came from all the cities and towns, as well as a large number of the local Polish population.
At the open gravesite, the first to say farewell to those partisans who perished is the representative of the committee of the Ostroweic landsmannschaft in Szczeczin, Moshe Kleinman.
|At the grave of brothers [mass grave] at the entrance to the Jewish cemetery.
In the background the destruction of Jewish Ostrowiec.
Handwriting in right corner of picture: Ostrowiec day of destruction
Destruction and Death
We say our farewell to you in the name of all the surviving Ostrowiec Jews, who are scattered and spread out across the veritable world. You went out in combat along with the best sons of our nation, against Hitler's occupation. But it was not fated for you to fulfill this work until the end. The traitorous bandits from the Local Committees, the enemies of Poland and of the Jewish nation cruelly cut down your lives early on.
But your fighting was not for nothing. Poland is a free and independent people's republic and there is no longer place in our country for national discrimination and racial hatred.
At your gravesite, we swear along with the Polish nation to put forward the fight for progress, peace, and democracy, so that such murders never happen again.
The second [speaker] is the representative of the Union of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy Orczewski:
You fell in combat for our common cause for a free and democratic Poland. Those who murdered you so cruelly, are also enemies of the Polish nation. The fight is not yet over. There are still dark powers by us, who do not support the new arrangements, and we have to see to seed them out of our lives. We say farewell to you in the name of all the fighters for freedom and democracy, and in deep, humble honor, we bow our heads over your graves.
In the name of the local committee of the United Workers Party (PSPR), the representative Poszaga says farewell to those who were murdered.
We, says the speaker, pay our respects to those fallen heroes who died in the fight for our and your freedom. We offer a clear judgement and reckoning against international fascism that tries with all its energies to rile one nation against the other in order to lead to a third world slaughter. At this gravesite, we ensure that the Polish workers and folk masses, directed by the Polish United Workers Party, with all its peaceloving strength in the world, will put forward the fight for a better and more beautiful tomorrow for all people, without discrimination of nationality or faith.
The next speech is from the representative of the Central Committee of the Jews of Poland L. Brener:
To me, says the speaker, was given the great honor for this sad celebration to represent the Central Committee of the Jews in Poland. This holy obligation has been given to me, to speak at this gravesite of twelve Jews who died in the fight against fascism.
It is impossible to express with words the deep anguish and pain for these who perished and were killed. We still have not recovered after the gruesome Hitler slaughter.
In view of all these events, we, the survivors of the gas chambers and death camps, will not be silent. During this day of tragic memorial, if we want to honor or fighters who died, we will not be silent. But we unite our voices with the voices of the fighters against the war inciters and we go in solidarity with the people
who are fighting for peace.
Giving honor to those who fell in the name of the Central Committee of the Jews of Poland, I declare:
Loyalty to the memory of our heroes and martyrs, and we will always be in the front lines among the fighters for freedom and peace.
This last person says farewell to the fallen Jewish heroes in the name of the city administration, the city president K. Buczka.
We bow our heads with the deepest emotion and respect, says President Buczka, over the gravesite of these Jewish heroes who fell in the fight for freedom, in the fight for a free and democratic people's Poland. Sadly, they did not reach the day of liberation, having been cruelly murdered by our domestic reactionaries the common enemy of the Jewish and Polish people.
I am saying farewell to you in the name of all the citizens in our city, and assure you that your memory will remain eternally etched in our hearts, and we will never forget you. We honor your memory.
The memory of the fallen heroes is honored with a moment of silence. The resonance of the International is taken up by all those gathered, as the casket is lowered into the ground. The last shovels of earth fall, and wreaths are positioned all around. With the greatest respect, the final glimpses are cast upon the gravesite of the fallen heroes who died in combat for a better and more beautiful tomorrow. After ending the memorial, Nochum Hertzel recited the Kaddish.
The administration of the Ostrowiec landsmannschaft in Szczeczin resolved to place a memento on the gravesite of the twelve fallen partisans. With that closing, the wellknown metalplasterer Benyomin Pacanowski from Lodz concludes the memorial.
Translated by Yaacov David Shulman
In September, 1945, a few months after the end of the war, the emigres from Ostrovtse in America and Canada received the following letter from the Jews who had returned to Ostrovtse with the hope of rebuilding their homes there, which had been so bestially destroyed:
…We are entirely orphaned here. For many of the nonJews, our huge tragedy isn't huge enough. That is testified to by the conduct of various Polish groups. They spread all sorts of slander, such as that we use the blood of Christian children for matzos or for transfusions. Many Jews who were miraculously saved from the crematorium ovens and barely survived to see the end of the the war were murdered by Polish patriots after they returned to Ostrovtse. The crematorium ovens of the murderers burned 16,000 Jews of Ostrovtse. That is not an exaggeration, because not long ago over 17,000 Jews lived in this town.
In a word, Jewish Ostrovtse has ceased to exist. Of the rebbes, none is left alive; of the synagogues and batei midrashim, there is no trace. The criminals razed them to the ground. Even the cemetery was not left alone: the graves have been desecrated, the fence dismantled. Cows and sheep graze there. The barbarians spit on the dead and murdered the living.
Jewish Ostrovtse is completely gone. You cannot restore Jewish Ostrovtse. Will you be able to give us back our parents, brothers, sisters, children and all of those who were close to us? Will you be able to restore a family life from shards and broken pieces? We thank you for your warm Jewish outreach. But we do not ask for monetary support. We ask for open doors where we may immigrate. We have no place to live. We need rescue, not reconstruction. We keep coming here, and they lie in wait for our barelyrescued children. Yes, Hitler's education has had its effect, and our life is uncertain because hooliganism rages.
The yahrzeit days of the Ostrovtse Jews are October 10, 11 and 12, 1942, and January 10, 1943. On these two days of mourning, 16,000 Jews were murdered.
by Dr. Chaim Shoshkes
Translated by Yaacov David Shulman
It is a five o'clock summer dawn when I take leave of the uncanny, historic old marketplace in Tzoyzmir and travel by car on the long road toward Warsaw.
Further… further … we travel into the suburb of Ostrovtse. A large Jewish community once lived heremore than 15,000 souls, I believe. The town contained huge metal factories, and the Jewish population was economically better off than the Jews in the neighboring towns.
It was a large Hasidic center, as well as a center of secular cultural activities.
Now, at the entrance to the town, I recall the people whom I met when I had come here to found the cooperative people's bank: city hall member Beigelman, the Agudah activist R. Avraham Mintzberg, Doctor Wachalder, the director Henech Royzman….
This time, however, I have no address to go to. I stand near a church with black wooden spires, from which comes singing and the sound of an organ. I glance inside: it is full, although the time is just seven
|Mass grave of 820 Jews, who were murdered at the time of the first expulsion
in the morning, filled with worshippers who are holding candles.
As I stand and look through the pickets into the church, a priest in a white, clean shirt with a red collar, a sign of his high clerical rank, comes out of a house next to the church.
I want to disappear, but the priest stops me with a friendly Good morning and May God bless you, and I answer in kind.
The priest comes out through the small door onto the street, where I am waiting near my car.
I introduce myself as a guest from America, a Jewish writer who is traveling here and knows the town from the past, and I mention the few names of the prominent social activists noted above.
The priest tells me that Dr. Wachalder and Beigelman had been his friends. He tells me as well that not a single Jew lives here anymore. He adds with a sad expression on his face that unfortunately, my Christian Polish fellowbelievers have not kept in touch with the few Jews who came back to Ostrovtse after the Nazis were defeated and Poland's independence was restored.
What he tells me isn't the entire truth, as I am later told by my writer colleague, K. Khermatz of Brazil, who was one of those who returned to the town after the war. After the destruction, 80 Jews came back to their home town of Ostrovtse. Poles murdered six of them, all young people. The remainder, understandably, fled. The victims were buried and a tombstone was placed over their mass grave. When an Ostrovtse Jew came for a visit a few years later, he found that the tombstone had been broken into pieces.
And now the priest tells me a story that causes everything to grow dark before my eyes.
Do you see the house I just came out of? That is the parish house, the priests' quarters. During the time of the Nazis, I lived there by myself. A few Jewish friends who were driven off to the slaughter in Tzoyzmir left their children with mefive boys, none older than six years.
I was denounced to the murderers, and they came to take away the children. I fell on my knees and wept. With the cross in my hand, I begged them. They pushed me aside, laughed at me, and threatened to shoot me.
And the children? They were shot here on the spotone after the other, angelic, precious.
And there still rings in my ears the small voice of a sixyearold boy, who fell to his knees before an SS man and begged him with his hands clasped together, ‘Nyekh pan manye nye zabiakh'che yeshtshe zshitsh. Sir, do not kill me. I want to live.’ But the ‘sir’ shot him and the child fell.
|The deteriorated tombstone of Sheindel Shpiegel, who was murdered by the Poles after the liberation
When the priest senses that I am growing cold, that little by little I am losing my senses, that I [am resting] my head on the iron picket and shivering, he pats my back.
I calm down a little. I ask the priest to write his name in my address book. He writes, Ksyandz [?] prelate Ivan Rutkavski of the church next to the Highest Call of Jesus' Heart (that is the name of the mausoleum [kashtshial]).
A broken person, I take my leave from the priest Rutkavski, and travel to where the old wooden synagogue had stood, and which had been built ten years before Columbus discovered America.
It had been painted with hundreds of scenes from the Bible and hung with tens of heavy copper menorahs.
Somewhere the old beis medrash had stood. A great singer, R. Akiva Mushkes had been the cantor.
My thoughts go to distant Rio de Janeiro, where R. Akiva's daughter Bluma with her husband Yisrael Saubel are now among the leading personalities of Brazilian Judaism. In their beautiful home, they always host me, the Jewish wanderer. And Bluma stands at the piano and still sings melodies, distant reclamations from the Ostrovtse cantor, her old father.
|The Jewish community in Ostrovtse after the liberation
by Amnon Ajzensztadt
Translated by Pamela Russ
[ ] translator's remarks
One hundred and sixty-three kilometers from Warsaw (30 miles from Tzoyzmir [Sandomierz]), between Drildzh [Iłża] and Opta [Opatów] one side, and Sienno [Sienno] and Neu-Szlupa [Nowa Słupia] the other side there is the city of Ostrowiec.
Today, you can get to Ostrowiec directly with a state autobus from Warsaw within a few hours for 150 zlotys (the American equivalent of $1.50), but I decided it was better to go with the train even though you had to change in the middle of the night in Skarżysko to the Rozwdów train that took you right into Ostrowiec. I did this for several reasons. First, I was curious about what a train trip was like with the current technology of Poland, where all the locomotives that pulled trains were still heated with coal. Second, I intended to come into Ostrowiec at dawn so that I would have the entire day at my disposition to take care of my things and not have to spend the night. Third, an inner instinct pushed me to buy a train ticket and go by train.
It could be that was a secret, dormant urge to relive the dangerous moments when the writer of these lines, as asheygitz [troublemaker], tens of times, along with others, stole ourselves onto the train lines; crossed a double German crime of Yaharogve'alya'avor [Let him be killed rather than transgress.], once before leaving the ghetto, and the second time before going onto the General Government train, and especially without a Jewish arm band. And it could also be a psychological assurance that not only were the murderers drawn to crime, but the victim was also drawn to the place where the torture happened.
In any case, the ticket seller in the main train station was certainly very curious about the foreigners who were dressed in such a bourgeois manner, with cameras hanging from their necks, asking for third-class tickets to OstrowiecŚwiętokrzyski.
Sir, she tried to explain to me, as she put down the primitive adding machine, it will probably be more comfortable for you to go first class because, as you know, the trains are now crowded with people who are going home for Easter.
Thank you so much, I answered politely. Being cramped is no problem for me. I actually like to ride with the simple class. It's more homey, and you can even say a word.
We left Warsaw around evening time. The locomotive blew its whistle nostalgically and let off clouds of steam as it started to move. Across from me sat two students who just returned from a vacation in England. As became evident through our common language, one of them was the son of the famous Polish surgeon who traveled frequently outside of the country to carry out operations, and as a result was financially sound. The second passenger was a jurist's son and was also studying to become a lawyer. The first passenger was dark-skinned, with a Jewish face and a hawk's nose. But after a few minutes, I rethought this and considered that his appearance was no more than a random coincidence. The young Pole was an authentic Aryan and to suspect him of Jewish ancestry was, as the Polish folk expression goes: the dream of a chopped off head.
Even though I knew that logically it was almost impossible to find a Jew somewhere, nonetheless, my eyes wandered across the faces of those sitting nearby what if? Now we were riding through areas, cities and towns where there were many crowded, multi-branched Jewish settlements: Radom, Szydlowiec, Wierzbinek [obecnie: Starachowice], and was there no trace of the former Jewish population and its 1000-year work and efforts?
As we got closer to the Ostrowiec region, my thoughts became more saddened, and I remembered more of the experiences I lived through of the nightmare past under the Nazi
occupation period. I was finally satisfied with my momentary easing when I heard the monotonous outcry of the passing conductor: Skarzysko-Kamienna [name of town], passengers for Strachowice, Ostrowiec, Sandomierz, Rozwadow. You are requested to quickly prepare yourselves [on the train] and please disembark.
The Partisan Criminal Parade
In order to reach the waiting train of the Rozwadów line, first you had to go onto a bridge built over the railway tracks and then cross over to the other side where the trains were waiting. I did not have much baggage with me. Anyway, I was not rushing to get a seat. And I was not upset anyway, if I could find a place to stand later on. The goal of this trip was absolutely not physical comfort. In some way, I was even happy that I would be standing for this final stage of my trip to Ostrowiec.
|A Hachshara [pioneering group preparing for Israel] after their liberation
Now I was going through the eastern territory of the Skarzysko pikrin [powder that is used to make mines] factories, where my closest and dearest sweated out their final fears in slavery work for the Nazi murderers. Now I was going across the area where thousands of my sisters and brothers were turned into yellow Frankensteins as they coughed out their lungs that were destroyed from sulphur, with terrible pain. So what if I took a little pride as I was forced to stand? Let me think that I was going through a burial place of fallen martyrs and that I was standing in honor of their holy memory.
Outside, it was dawning. Factory buildings began to appear more frequently, smoking chimneys, also dusty, industrial, brick buildings, walled in by small green Sosna [pine] forests. All around
everything looked normal, peaceful and calm, as if nothing bad had ever happened to anyone. That's likely how the masked gas chambers looked in Treblinka, deceptive and innocent, around which the kind Germans planted fragrant flowers.
Not far into the distance, on the horizon, is the Kunów forest. Thirteen young boys and one girl (Dora the wine seller's), the salt and pepper of the Ostrowiec ghetto youth, made contact with the regional commander of the AK (Armia Krajowa Home Army) and mobilized themselves with the underground partisans' fight against the nations' murderers. The region's headquarters of the Home Army was overtaken by the rebellious youth in their regions and they positioned themselves as the equal rights fighters in the secret dugouts of the Kunów forest.
The resistance feelings within the young generation in the Ostroweic ghetto were heightened as they found out that a sentry from our youth was already in the forest as an avenger for the spilled blood. Even though the knife was already at our throats, and every day we waited for the final evacuation of the ghetto, it was still a protective good feeling to know that Ostrowiec boys had become the redeemers of blood in the neighboring mountains in the forests, negating the humiliating legend that Jews were only able to become capable, willing martyrs, and this opened a hope that maybe they would still be successful in saving the local youth [by bringing them] into the forests, where they would become the avantgarde of our tortured nation in their fight, with ammunition in hand, against the vile exterminators of our nation.
Seeing the inevitable liquidation, a feverish mobilization of forest goers began. Hundreds presented themselves voluntarily, putting their lives at stake for the great idea: for our and your freedom; (great daring at that time
|Committee of Ichud [Central Zionist Party] in Ostrowiec
was shown by Avremele Weinberg of Sziener Street, with his fearless purchase of weapons, which he actually even bought off a German Wehrmacht [German militaryman].
Impatiently, the organizers of this holy conspiracy prepared themselves, waited for a signal from the first sortie group, that the road was free and that the second, much larger group, could follow.
And the signal was not long in coming. Shloimele Zweigman (died in New York from bad blood circulation caused by open wounds) delivered it. A bloody fire spark [like firecracker] of the ugliest, heaven-ripping cries, murder of brothers.
At two a.m., Shloimele, who was wounded, barely dragged himself back into the ghetto. Shot through his cheeks, hands and stomach splintered from grenades, told over what happened, in a spasmic cry:
Not one of those who were with me in the forest is alive. They did not die fighting the Germans, but they were killed in the most bestial manner, completely shot down with bullets from machine guns, dismembered by grenadesfrom their own so-called weapon comrades with whom they were supposed to ally in the fight for freedom. In Nachman Alman's home in the wagon factory, Shloimele Zweigman lay moaning under the hands of the medic, who was trying to root out the embedded splinters, risking even his own life. Between one bandage and another, the wounded Zweigman recounted the Dante-like scene that played out before his eyes in the Kunów mountains.
First, they swore to us partisans, to their last drop of blood, that they would fight the occupier. After that, they shared cake and brandy with us so that we should not suspect anything, and then they officially congratulated us for the heroic decision to go forward armed against the German enemy. Only later, in name of the captain, they took our revolvers, which were so hard to get, to so-called determine their capacity, and then told us to go into the hut and wait.
We did not have to wait long. After cheating us and taking our weapons, they surrounded us on all sides and opened a flood of crossfire from the automatic guns and grenades. We fell one on top of another into pools of blood,
completely confused by the diabolical act of the lowest type of murder. Sounds of shooting bullet rounds mixed with final Shema Yisroel [last prayer before death], and we placed ourselves with the final moments of the dying.
When I regained consciousness, it was already dark. In my vision, I could not figure out what had happened here. But soon I figured out the entire extent of the horrific event. With my last strength I managed to move out from between the bodies of my friends, that were still warm. I don't know with which strength I managed to drag myself the ten kilometers back into the ghetto, to warn you that you cannot send any people into the forest…
So, no more people were sent into the forest. The provocative behavior of the Kunów freedom fighters choked the final possibility for those Ostrowiec native who rushed to fight and who were so horrifically and cruelly murdered by their own underground soldiers, who themselves were Ostrowiec natives.
Truthfully, the Polish post-war procurator thanks to the heroic initiative and eye-witness recounting of Leibish Rozenblat (now a Toronto resident), who actually sacrificed his life to provide proof caught and convicted three of the criminals. This trial happened after the Kielce pogrom, actually in Kielce itself, and the criminals Nowak and Mularski were sentenced to death, and the third murderer, Perzyński to a 50-year prison sentence.
But in the group of horrifically destroyed men, there was already no one able to be revived from the dead…
Now, as I stand pressed tightly against the train car's window, and look out at the dawning day, it is as if the speeding wheels of the train send me a memorial echo of the Kunów mountains' last breath. And I could swear that the emission of the locomotive has in it an unusual resemblance to the final helpless cries of my heroic friends: Chanan Sherman, Meyer Kudlovitch, LeibishWartsman, Kalman Greenberg, Mottel Weinstok, Dovid Groiskop, Elimelech Brafman, Naszelski, and others whose agonizing moans have gradually had to terminate, just as the moan of the passenger train systematically slows down, as it stops in front of the red Ostrowiec train station across a sign with black-white moonlit letters: Ostrowiec-Swietokrzyski.
Every Step Awakens Memories
The last time I left this train station was fifty years ago. At that time, it was after returning from my vagabond wanderings as an Aryan with Polish documents, which Lutek Eisen, of blessed memory, the respected community activist from Konin, arranged for me. This activist, who faithfully dealt with the needs of the community, acquired a Christian identification card for me through his connections, and he himself died later in the Ostrowiec ghetto, infected with the typhus virus that he caught from the wanderings with his evicted compatriots, and whose goal was to help them as best as he could. (Another victim of the same specific ghetto disease, typhus, was a well-known community activist from Konin, Chaim Piekarczyk, a close friend of Lutek Eisen.)
Tens of Jews who returned assembled in the location of the temporary Jewish Committee on Church Street. This gathering was run by Aaron Friedental. Some of the returnees still carried the fantasy of shaking off the ash and rebuilding a new life. But Jew-hating, underground criminals came and with guns' bullets cut off the lives of those who tried to save themselves from Hitler's gas chambers, shattering the final illusion of once again rebuilding themselves in their former home town (among the post-war victims were: Chaike Shpiegel, the steel merchant's daughter; Faitche Krongold and the 17-year-old only son Yisroel Leibish Lustig, whose father, Yakov Lustig, died soon after from great anguish).
All these tragic memories come
into my head now when I go on foot into the city, getting off the train that had just come in. In the length, is the red-bricked fence of the Ostrowiec wagon factory. Behind this brick wall, my talented school friend, from the Warsaw government teacher's seminary, was shot the poet Moshe Gutman, who unquestionably would have become one of the greatest writers of modern Hebrew poetry. On the other side of the fence were the barracks which housed those selected, capable of work, still exploiting the Jews. As an unbelievable story from the Thousand and One Nights, it seems that, in 1943, in view of the decline and tragic destruction, in one barrack an illegal Hertzl Academy was organized, where an organized musical quartet performed, comprised of the warm Viennese Jewish doctor Peker Cello (who today is in Vienna), Severin Pietruszka, director of the Lodz Philharmonic Orchestra first violin; Beigelman second violin; and Mitzmacher third violin. Can someone imagine the meaning of the encouraging sounds of Hatikva [Israeli national anthem], for those locked up in camps under the nose of those Hitlerist work guise.
Every step closer to the alleys evokes memories that are awakened with such graphic boldness, as if it happened just yesterday. I remember about thirty years ago was the first time I came to Ostrowiec in a completely different mood. At that time, as the Rebbe's only son, I came with my father, Admor [Hebrew acronym for Adonainu, Morainu, VeRabbeinu; Our Master, Our Teacher, Our Rabbi; title for leader and scholar in Chassidic group], the Rav Alexander Zushe Eizenstat, may his blood be avenged, who, at the invitation of his followers, went to conduct a tish [table; special gathering with Chassidic followers] in the Ostrowiec Bais Midrash [Study Hall]. As long as I will live, I will never forget those elevated, spiritual moments, when the elderly Ostrowiec tzaddik [righteous person], Reb Meir Yechiel Halstock, of blessed memory, and my father, together conducted a sholos seudos [third Shabbat meal], delivered Torah words, and spiritually infused the thousands of people in the crowd with the wonder of chassidic melodies.
But now, I am alone in a shiva [mourning] mood, and with each step farther, a dark sorrow hovers more and more over me, from only being aware that it is possible that I am stepping into the exact steps of my tragic, holy parents who went on this same route but in the opposite direction, being chased by clubs, to their final trip to Treblinka in the cattle cars.
I try to control the sudden impulse that dictates me to remove my shoes and walk barefoot into the city. I brace myself not to be broken by the feeling that is roiling in me: Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground… [Book of Exodus, G-d speaks to Moses at the burning bush].
It is quiet in the early morning in the alleyways (the Fifth Avenue of former Ostrowiec). But you already see small groups of workers standing on the street corners waiting for the autobus which comes to pick them up and takes them to the outlying units of the Ostrowiec establishments. Just as twenty years ago you saw workers returning from their night shift, you can recognize them by the two kilo round loaves of bread that they carry, just as before, under their arm. Just as in the pre-war times, many workers are going home by bicycle. This part of town in Ostroweic has by and large not changed at all. A little farther, I find out that the roadway from the alleyways to the marketplace is completely blocked, because they entirely removed the wooden bridge over the stones, where, in its place, the city council will now build a much stronger, more comfortable bridge, across which even the heaviest tractors and locomotives will be able to pass safely. Right past the bridge, on the right side, where the Spiegels had their steel company, there is still the Ostrowiec foremost restaurant, where the Judenrat welcomed the SS pogrom activists of the Klimontow correction unit. And, with the best food and most expensive wines, they would work on the bandits that they should release the pale faces from their rafnikes [?] and beat them with mercy.
A Jewish City Disappears
Beginning with the fortune tellers [poworzhnikes?] and up through Church Street to the market, the majority of Jewish stores were turned into private homes. Even the market already looks different, as one can recognize the changes immediately.
First, the entire marketplace area is plastered with stone tiles giving the impression of an amphitheater, with the tall numbers as its podium.
In the middle of the market, opposite the pharmacy, in the most prominent place, there is a memorial of gratitude for the liberating Russian army in the form of a Red Army soldier, fully armed, with a flag in hand.
In the place of Kerbel's beer bar there is now a large food cooperative, which replaces the tens of Jewish provision stores that were in the city, which used to operate mainly on credit until the end of the month.
The Sholom Aleichem streets are gone from the Tilna and Zatilna. In their place, large, modern apartment buildings have been put up for the local residents.
|The Ostrowiec marketplace, cleansed of Jews
On Kiniver Street, no radical change is noticeable, except for the former Jewish cemetery on the mountain which was changed into a rich garden, hardly leaving behind a trace of its former character as a burial place, where there were hundreds of historical, rare tombstones f Jewish personalities.
In the background of a new church, there are a few abandoned tombstones standing in a corner, as a sad, unrecognized memento of Jewish Ostrowiec, which vanished. There is even no remnant of the holy Tzaddik of Ostrowiec's gravesite. Other than the 400-year-old tree that rooted through its own phenomenal stubbornness in the former cemetery and spitefully survived everyone it still stands, in spite of its old age.
As if with leaden feet, I go to
Szienne Street. Here also there are no great changes. Levkovitch's house still stands just about in the center of Szienienska, between the market and the brewery, but instead of the Jewish occupants, of which I remember Alexadrovitches and the Landos, may their blood be avenged, the noble people are now Christian residents, who likely pay rent to the municipality. Outside, near the big city building, stands one of the Mikhanski brothers, not so elegantly dressed, with a hammer and saw in hand, and is smoking a cheap cigarette. That is the same high-class Mikhanski that did no wrong to the Jews, but never allowed any poor Jew to get a pail of water from his courtyard well.
Directly across is number 54 Szienna Street. That was the house of Reb Eliezer Brukierer, may his blood be avenged, where my father's writings are buried, and which I am trying to get into my own hands.
I am waiting impatiently for the magistrate office to open so that I can intervene with the representative of the city council regarding permission and police assistance to meet the new owner of the building where the manuscripts are hidden away in a wooden box under the floor of the small official house in the back of the yard.
Meanwhile, it is not yet nine a.m., when the official working hours begin. In the meantime, I go through the former homey streets, and notice, for example, that Sokol's sport field has been built over with brand new houses, all white in color. On Drildzer Street where the final act of the ghetto drama took place still stands the Judenrat building, freshened up, with red and white script on it: Here is now the municipal industrial secondary school. Nearby, I recognize Kantor's former barber shop, abandoned and boarded up.
How different in my eyes do the quiet and sharp stone-paved streets look to me, than they looked when they swam with colorful, Jewish life.
There were 8,000 Jews here when the murderous conquerors marched into Ostrowiec; 10,000 Jews in 1940; 11,000 with those who were herded in, in 1941. The 17,000 Jews who were assembled here in 1942 were expelled to Treblinka, under the carefree supervision of the famous murder maniacs: Peter and Bruno, with the assistance of the security police, not to mention such lowlife types of the grenade police such as: Kaczmarek, who like hyenas, waited for the moment that they would be able to rob the remaining possessions of the Jews.
At the time when the above-mentioned vampires were following through with the liquidation action there was a special delegate from Berlin, from the Reich, who sat in the city council, his name was Matchol, and he held the position of city commissioner over Ostrowiec. This middle-aged nobleman, civilly dressed in a soft fur hat with a folded down brim, and a well-fed, round face was really the theoretical, tyrannical formulator of all the expulsions, which he had a weakness to publicize on large, displayed posters, signed with his official title as commissioner of the city.
I Search for My Father's Manuscripts
Now I am sitting in Matchol's office, where today, the workers returned from a meeting of the Ostrowiec city council. Tall, serious, with a refined appearance, he came to me from the middle of an ongoing conference, since I was a Canadian tourist and my father was the Ostrowiec resident, the Sandomierz Rabbi.
Truthfully, at first he hesitated, not knowing in embarrassment how to react to my request of helping me dig up the hidden box of writings. But when I explain to him that there are no valuables hidden in the box, only religious manuscripts, and maybe daily reports of the occupation time period, at the level of Dovidel Rabinovitch's notebooks, he telephones the commissioner of the people's militia in the avenues, and organizes several militias to accompany me, and they would not only maintain order and chase away those who were curious, but also, with shovels in hand, they would help me dig.
Unfortunately, however, almost nothing was found in that place
where, with my own hands, I helped dig [i.e., for the buried papers] 1942. The soft, soaked earth into which the shovels sank without resistance, already had all the signs of things found.
|The gravesite of the first Jewish victim (marked with the stick), near the gravesite of the last Jewish victims who were murdered by Poles in Ostrowiec in January 1945
This was not because the hiding place was unknown.
|Balka Gertner, murdered in the Kielce pogrom after the liberation
Even though the small house at the back of the yard was taken down until its foundation, I saw that someone had already taken care of this for us, searching for valuables and having found handwritten Jewish pages, and being annoyed, threw them out.
I photograph the militia in memory of their participation in the search expedition and, without a choice, I am satisfied with my yellow Jewish card which I found with a few pictures, some with penciled writings of my father, of blessed memory, and a small package of writings which we take out from under a layer of limestone on the coal oven in the former dining-room of Reb Eliezer Brukierer (who refused to go into the wagon car and was shot for his resistance).
Among the hardly legible words of my father's rubbed out handwriting, I recognize and read a plastic fragment of an unfinished Hebrew ghetto song: My heart is a harp of bitter pain; my soul filled with miserable sounds.
This is really the spiritual condition in which I find myself. This is really best description of my above-mentioned mood, in which I return to Warsaw.
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