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[Page 449]

Ostrowiec without Jews

[Page 455]

The Terrible Disappointment of the “Liberated” Jews of Ostrovtse

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 non–Jews, 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 barely–rescued 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.


[Page 456]

Ostrovtse without Jews

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 here–more 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

 

ost456.jpg
Mass grave of 820 Jews, who were murdered at the time of the first expulsion

[Page 457]

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 fellow–believers” 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 me–five 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 spot–one after the other, angelic, precious.

“And there still rings in my ears the small voice of a six–year–old boy, who fell to his knees before an SS man and begged him with his hands clasped together, ‘Nyekh pan manye nye zabia–kh'che yeshtshe zshitsh. Sir, do not kill me. I want to live.’ But the ‘sir’ shot him and the child fell.”

 

ost457.jpg
The deteriorated tombstone of Sheindel Shpiegel, who was murdered by the Poles after the liberation

[Page 458]

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.

 

ost458.jpg
The Jewish community in Ostrovtse after the liberation

 

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