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[Page 468]

On the Ruins

 

I Walk Upon Ruins

by B. T. Boim

Translated by Irving Lumerman

Edited by Martin Jacobs

I walk upon fires, on eternal ruins,
And all the slain of my people follow me.
They rip up every paving stone,
And they count the tears in every brook and river.

I lift up a handful of earth in my hands –
Alas, how many eyes are peering at me!
Every pebble – a generation, every grain of sand – a grandfather.
The earth has been near to me these many years.

I walk upon ruins, I seek graves,
Only a lone tree lifts its head to me,
A fugitive tree, a survivor, broad in trunk and branch.
Once my poor grandfather sat in its shade.

The tree is struck dumb, its bark is cracked,
Bent over graves, with a broken spirit.
Its hide withers as my heart withers.
O tree, alas, O tree, you are to me as my father.

O tree, alas, O tree, before you is one who hears[1].
My heart is a flute, the deaf man refuses to listen.
Like birds from a cage my songs burst forth from my mouth,
But they do not give rest, they do not give quiet.

I stand upon ruins and carve a path through them.
Until a spring in the desert announces redemption.
Until my darkness changes to light seven times seven,
Until my angel[2] ascends to the highest heaven.

Editor's Notes:

  1. Literally “before you is an ear”, but, by contrast with the next line (“the deaf man refuses to listen”), “one who hears” seems appropriate. Return
  2. “ayin-yud-resh-yud” generally means “city”, but there is another, rarer word of the same spelling, which means “angel”, more appropriate for the context. Return

[Page 469]

On the Ruins

Translated by Tina Lunson

Our shtetl [little town] is desolate as a cemetery and in this desolation still hangs the uproar of those for whom no one had any mercy. Each name – an open wound that tells of huge wonders, of fine, honest Jews who lived here warm, quiet and happy, and blessed with the power of simple speech, with the smell of fresh rye bread and with great belief in God the merciful and forgiving.

Oh, fine and strong Jews of our shtetl, with your virtues and demeanor were like bits of heaven over the Tarnogrod earth and so are you etched in the memory of the surviving Tarnogrod Jews. Your entire life in today's time is no more than a long-vanished story. But the longing for the fineness that you carried within yourselves and left as an inheritance for the survivors can never be stilled.

The soul of the shtetl has been taken away. It has been extinguished, has breathed its last. It looks like a throwback to its original condition hundreds of years ago, before the Jews had arrived and it was just a small peasant settlement. Now we come to the horrible, sticky filth of the horrendous crimes that were committed here which we will never forget.


[Pages 470 - 481]

Tarnogrod's Surviving Remnant

by Nachum Krymerkopf

Translated by Tina Lunson

The war had ended and the few Tarnogrod Jew left alive, who had saved themselves from the murderous hell, began to present themselves in the light of day. The Jews came out of the forests and from the bunkers and various hiding places provided for them by a few good-hearted Christians. The Jews turned back to Tarnogrod with the hope that the war was over and the Jews who had fled to Russia would return and they could begin a new life in Tarnogrod. They intended that the shtetl [little town] would once again become a Jewish settlement.

The Poles in Tarnogrod thought differently. One night they attacked the remnant of living Jews and beat them, robbed them and warned them to leave the town right away. The warning was accompanied by the threat that any Jew who remained in Tarnogrod would be killed.

For less than one year the surviving Jews lived in Tarnogrod and sought in several ways to find livelihoods to support a life and waited calmly, hoping, that other Jews would return and that life would be regularized. But their hopes were false. The danger of death still hung over their heads and they had to leave their homes and go away, some to Lublin, some to Wroc³aw, some to other German cities that belonged to Poland and where it was easier to rent an apartment, in place of the Germans who had been driven out and had returned to Germany.

It appeared that the Tarnogrod Jews' attachment to their town was so strong that even after the night of attack by bandits some families remained, thinking that the danger would pass. In 1946, when the last victims -- Ozer Wachnachter's wife and 6 month-old daughter and Chaim Weiner from Bilgoraj – were murdered by the Polish bandits, not one Jew dared to stay in Tarnogrod.

No more Jews in Tarnogrod. The Jewish houses, remaining empty places, went to ruin, vestiges of destruction, and the earth around them sprouted wild grasses.

A few houses remained around Lakhever Street, on Rozshinitzer Street and on the market square, on the side where Yentche Lemer had lived. Those houses were snatched up by the Poles, who lived in them and dealt in the shops and used the things that had been left there.

In the shop where the stately-looking Jew had stood and weighed out merchandise with his honest hands now stood Makhiek and did the same with his piggish hands. Instead of a mezuzah at the entryway, a cross was drawn.

In Tarnogrod not all the Jewish houses were burned, but were sold by the Germans once all the Jews lay in the mass graves. They sold them to the non-Jews from the burned-out and demolished villages. In 1945, when there was once again a Polish government, the Poles sold Jewish houses with the goal of cleaning them out and leaving empty places. A special committee was created by the authorities at the time to deal with this. Ninety percent of he Jewish houses in Tarnogrod were wooden so it was easy to dispose of them.

I was in Tarnogrod during those days and saw the Poles tearing apart the remaining Jewish houses that they had bought from the government and loading the lumber onto wagons and driving away with it. I went to the town hall and called on the Polish committee with a protest against the sale of the Jewish houses. I reproached them, that there were families of the killed Jews in Russia who would soon come back home and would want to live in the remaining houses. They answered me with derision and irony, that the town could not take it upon itself to protect the houses that were robbed and sacked by the peasants, who took off the doors and windows and also the wood siding. Thus it was better that the houses be sold and when a relative from Russia announced himself he could receive the money that had come from the sale.

The prices were negligible. But the true intentions of the city fathers were clear to me then. They were selling the houses just then when they had heard that Jews were beginning to return from Russia. They did not want the returning Tarnogrod Jews to come back to town and so were doing everything so that they would have no place to rest their heads and would be forced to leave Tarnogrod.

Such were the plans of our former neighbors in those days, and they carried their plans out. So they finished with the last Jews, with Azriel from Maydan Shinovski, with Shmuel from Borvits, with Rivka and Pesza from Bishtsh, with Mordechai Lipe Adler, with Itsik Egert.

 

Along the Streets of the Victims

Among the Jewish ruins, I saw straying in the empty places moldy pages from a prayer book, detached and decaying sheets imprinted with the Holy Name, stuck together with dust and mud. A child's summer cap rolled about someplace, and the wind played with a sack, chasing it to and fro in the empty space. Among the ruins lay a child's shirt, torn and molding. It was sad wandering through Tarnogrod streets, looking into the windows. The stones, the houses -- everything screamed with that scream of the most horrifyingly violent deaths that anyone can conceive of. The few passers-by looked at me strangely, with suspicion. In their eyes, faces, I could read the suspicion: What is he looking for here, this stranger? Has he come here to demand his due for an injustice that one of our current residents has done to him?

And I looked these people in the eye searchingly. Perhaps there would be a name, a familiar face, who could repeat for me the gruesome history of all that had happened on this soil. I felt so lonesome and needed to have someone with me who would help me shake off the horror of those days, help to demand justice, to cry out… I saw how non-Jews were wrapping their treif sausages in torn Talmud pages, to take to market. I was silent, mute, could not find words for my pain, and I thought: God, do You see how people are wrapping pig flesh in your Torah? Why are You silent?

I stood alone in the empty market square. A strange emptiness engulfed me. The same market and yet so strange as to be unrecognizable. It was the realization of the evil dream of the Polish anti-Semites who had fought even in the early days to have the Jewish shopkeepers thrown out of the market. But even they had not imagined back then that the realization of their dream would also remove all the Jewish householders from the Jewish homes. All those Jews, who had built up – from an empty piece of meadow – a bustling center of trade and craftsmanship that provided necessary supplies for the residents of the town and for the surrounding villages.

Here in Tarnogrod, at the Jewish blacksmiths, tailors and shoemakers, carpenters and harness-makers, the peasant repaired his plowing tools, his wagon or sled, had his clothes resewn or got a pair of boots or a coat for the winter. And they worked, those Jewish craftsmen, for bread and water.

How much life those Jews had brought to the whole area. The market was always full of them. Standing around in groups and chatting. Arguing with one another. Now not one of them. All is as though emptied out, asleep, dead.

 

Last Sparks Under the Ashes

I already knew then that among the surviving Jews from Tarnogrod and the surrounding villages who succeeded in evading the German hangman and hiding in the forests, in
underground hide-outs at a peasant farm, some for money, some without, were Eliezer Wertman, Mordechai Lipe Adler, Chaim Adler and his wife, Lipiner, Shlomo Yehoshua Adler and his sister Tobtche, Malka Herbstman, Eliezer Lumerman, Avigdor Gut, Efraim Lumerman and his wife and children, Avraham Haler and his wife and children and also his sisters, Shmuel Borvitzer, Hersh Weltz, Teme Trinker, David Entner. All of these survived in the Józefów forest. David Entner was later murdered by Polish bandits outside Tarnogrod. Weltz killed a German in Frankfurt several years after the war. He tricked the German into coming to his home under the pretext of selling him gold, and he killed him there.

Also remaining alive were Sara Magram, Sini Groyer, Neche and Sara from the village Babitsh, Simcha Knochen, Teme and her two brothers, Krigsner from the village Bishtsh, Shlomo Sprung from Fatik, Azriel Korngold. They were all hidden by peasants who were well paid by them.

Also among the living were Rivka Lustrin, Mindel Klug, Rivka from Bishtsh, Itsik Egert, Ozer Wachnachter and his wife Pesza. They survived on Aryan papers.

Staying alive in camps were Yentche Melamed's grandson, Zelik Tryb, Sarale Fiter, Mendel Silberzweig. Simcha Statfeld and his son survived in the Lemberg (Lviv, Ukraine) ghetto and later in the forest.

All these survivors who thought that they could stay in Tarnogrod had to leave the town and settle in Lower Silesia, with the hope of emigrating from Poland later. The single dominating thought for everyone was Erets Yisroel [land of Israel].

In Tarnogrod the big shul [synogogue] and the beit midrash [house of study] remained whole. But the Poles later built a coach house in the place of the beit midrash which they demolished. They turned the shul into a storehouse for various kinds of merchandise.

There is no trace of the old cemetery in the place where it had been. There are only unclean things there today. All the matseyves [gravestones] have been torn out. All the trees cut down. The Germans used the matseyves to pave the road to Rozanietz. The graves have become even with the earth, beaten down by paths and trails that the Poles have ground down as ways to the town. There is no sign of any grave.

The three fresh graves of the Wachnachters and Weiners are also effaced. The brick ohel [crypt] that held the remains of the Kreszówer Tzadik (see page 275) and Tarnogrod Rabbi has also been torn down. There is no evidence of the generations of holiness with which the Tarnogrod Jews encircled this place.

How terrible is the obtuseness of the remaining Poles. The holiness of that place is much greater and more fearful than that of an ordinary cemetery. This is the cemetery of a world that was murderously cut down. Everything that reminds us of that world must be held as holy and dear. There is no designation for those who desecrate it so brutally, so un-humanly, with animal boorishness.

We will never forget the murder of our shtetl, of our slaughtered people. We will carry eternally the debt that we owe our murdered Tarnogrod Jewish families, who with their last shout of “Shema Yisrael!” also demanded revenge for their innocent blood's out-pouring.

Honor all our dearest and best, who were so gruesomely slaughtered by the Hitleristic and Polish murderers!

 

Stones Along The Border

In 1946 Jewish refugees from Russia began coming home, including those from Tarnogrod. In their minds Tarnogrod remained their old home. With that word, home, they got by in far-off Russia. They who traveled home did not think that the home was already long gone, that the German devils had ripped up their homes roots and all.

Only with their arrival in the towns did they set their eyes on the destruction and perceive that the earth on which they trod was soaked with Jewish blood.

Already at the border their transports were attacked with stones and with Poles shouting “Jew, death awaits you!” All the refugee transports were turned toward the German cities that now belonged to Poland. The Jews felt somewhat safer there. More than 80 percent of the houses were vacant. The previous German residents had fled to the American zone. In those cities and towns, the Tarnogrod Jews who had lost their homes also set up their new homes temporarily. No matter who you spoke with then, there was always the call “How do we get to Eretz Yisrael?” But that promised Jewish land was closed and protected by the English military so that no Jew could sneak in illegally.

In those days the Brikha movement [organization that transported Holocaust survivors into Palestine] began to operate. Hundreds and thousands of young people, led by Eretz-Yisrael Haganah [volunteers protecting Jews] fighters, began to organize the refugees and help them to cross the borders to Germany, Austria and Italy where camps had been set up and from there they could take various routes – all very dangerous – to the borders of Eretz. But there were several reasons that Jews become chained to their new places. Some remembered later and wanted to travel out but it was too late, the Brikha was no longer working and the Polish borders were already closed.

The Tarnogrod residents learned, meanwhile, about the misfortune that had befallen the Jewish victims who were murdered by the Poles, and the refugees were afraid to travel into Tarnogrod. And the road back involved deadly dangers. The Polish underground army, the A. K., was set up in the forests and lay in wait for Jews passing through, whom they murdered in savage ways.

Only in the 1950s, when the Polish underground army was liquidated, did some of the Tarnogrod Jews who remained in Poland, decide to travel to Tarnogrod and there to sell their inherited properties, for which they had not received any payment. And later those same Jews, with the opening of the gates to free immigration, made aliyah [immigration] to Israel. And there are still some Tarnogrod Jews in Poland, working in various posts.

During the time when the Jews fleeing Poland found themselves in the specially-made camps in Germany and Italy, the Tarnogrod Relief Committee in America sent packages of food and clothing to the Tarnogrod Jews in the camps. The Committee was headed by Itche-Ber Adler as president and Berel Tryb, secretary.

When the Jewish state was proclaimed – a state located among nine Arab countries – there were Tarnogrod Jews among the volunteer fighters who came out of the camps: Moshe Rosenfeld, Shmuel Eliyahu Futer, Chaim Bornstein, Moshe Treger and Itche Weintraub, the last of whom fell in a battle with the Arabs. As soon as the stream of immigration began – after a cease-fire – many Tarnogrod Jews made aliyah to Israel. Unfortunately some could not arrange it and some of them went off to various American states, where they managed with help from the Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which also helped them to find livelihoods.

 

The help from our American Landslayt [countrymen]

The Tarnogrod Jews in America had founded the Tarnogroder landsmanshaft [organized society of countrymen] several decades before, according to the example of all the other Jews from various villages. They had their own shul and their own cemetery. These landsmanshaften met once a month and accepted new members, and at special meetings decided whom to give help to and how to help their landsleit on the other side of the sea.

The Tarnogroder landsmanshaft took in all the newly-arriving refugees from Tarnogrod without fees and helped them in every possible way to get on their feet.

The Relief Committee had been concerned even before the war with the poor Jews in Tarnogrod. They had sent aid, especially for Passover and other holidays. After the war, when the Committee was led by A. B. Adler and Secretary N. Krymperkopf, and later when the president was Lumerman and the secretary Fink, there was a regular stipend for poor Tarnogrod Jews in Israel. The Relief Committee in America also took upon itself the whole responsibility for publishing this Yizkor Book. A money stipend was promptly sent to Israel for the first expenses for the Yizkor Book by Yosef Schorer and Abraham Kramer.

My brother Avraham took me to a meeting of the society as soon as I arrived in New York. At the time the governance was composed of Proisengarten, President; Yakov Stiglitz, Financial Secretary; M. Baumfeld, Minutes Secretary; A. B. Adler, Chairman of the Relief Committee; Berel Tryb, Secretary.

The society took me in with heartfelt friendship and accepted me as a member without dues, and proposed to me to be secretary of the Relief Committee with a stipend of 50 dollars a year, which was considered a gift. I accepted the proposal and immediately took on the work of helping the Tarnogrod Jews in Israel.

The whole time that I was in America, I was occupied with the idea of creating a monument to our martyrs, the murdered Jews of Tarnogrod, and being Secretary of the Relief Committee and I often suggested that idea, mentioned and proposed, that we erect a matseyve to our martyrs. Everyone's reply was positive. Everyone understood the importance of that act, but the difficulties lay in gathering the financial help necessary for carrying out the project. Difficulties are presented so that we may overcome them, and I did not give up on the idea, and brought up the matter at a meeting with the administration of the society. Unfortunately there were those who did not want to deal with the matter as urgent, and they set it aside for a later time.

Time does not stand still. One administration dissolves and another takes its place. The positions were taken by the newcomers, the greenhorns. Yosel Schorer became President. A meeting was called, and only a few members attended, and I was called upon to present my proposal to erect a memorial in the cemetery for Tarnogroder Jews in New York, a special tombstone for the murdered martyrs.

The proposal was accepted with the condition that the erection of a matseyve be approved by a specially-called general meeting. That decision calmed me. We were certain that everyone at the general meeting would value the moral significance and not oppose the erection of such a memorial.

Among those attending the general meeting was former president of the Jewish Council in Tarnogrod, Sini Groyer. Along with him came his brother Zischa and a few other organized members of the society, Tarnogrod sons-in-law, and they opposed the decision to erect a memorial.

The proposal failed and that was a hard blow for me. I could not comprehend that Tarnogrod Jews, who had survived that horrible hell, would not understand the importance and the respectability of erecting a matseyve to the memory of our dear tormented families. I experienced a deep embitterment and disappointment and thought that something must be done for the memory of our martyrs. I decided to take on the project with my own strength and not to ask anyone for any help.

 

The Stone on Mount Zion

My disappointment caused me to renounce my duties as secretary of the relief committee. During that time I harbored the idea of going to Israel. In my plan it would be possible in a few years. But now the rejection of the idea of erecting a matseyve, made me quicken the pace for the plan and I hurried my trip to Israel.

Immediately upon my arrival in Israel I began with my own resources to erect a matseyve on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Approaching the realization of this task called for assembling a meeting of Tarnogrod Jews in Israel. The meeting took place in Haifa, in the home of Yekhezkel Tofler. We discussed what the inscriptions should be on the matseyve. I also asked for the help of people who would travel to Jerusalem and decide which wall of the Holocaust House the matseyve should be mounted in.

I also met with the unexpected opposition of one person who maintained that there was no need for a matseyve, and who declared that the Tarnogrod Jews in Israel had never given such an idea any thought and were not in agreement about the importance of such a monument. Tzvi Rozenson stayed actively on my side and others also agreed. We went to Mount Zion together with Shmuel Fefer and wrote out the style of the inscription and showed the stone-carver which wall to place the matseyve into.

The unveiling of the matseyve was on May 1, 1960. Moshe Sprung sent out the invitations to all the Tarnogrod Jews and a fine audience attended. All were satisfied with immortalizing the memory of the martyrs from our shtetl.

Being in Israel for five months, I was in contact with many fellow landsleit and I could feel their satisfaction and understanding about the importance of the matseyve on Mount Zion. I was very touched by the evening gathering that the Tarnogrod landsleit organized at Golda Egert's home. We sat around two covered tables. People shared memories about life in Tarnogrod. People discussed questions having to do with the American Relief Committee, about the urgency of establishing a free-loan society and a committee charged with distributing the aid only to those in need.

At that same meeting we dealt with the issue of writing a scroll in which the names of all the martyrs from our shtetl would be written. Everyone accepted that proposal with great enthusiasm. Mr. Moshe Sprung sent out a letter to all the landsleit asking them to send in the names of their murdered relatives.

It was painful for me to convince myself of how few people responded to that initiative.


FROM A RUINED GARDEN

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.
INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS
<https://www.indiana.edu/~iupress/ >
Bloomington and Indianapolis

[Pages 481 - 482]

Searching for the Life That Was

Nachum Krymerkopf

Sefer Tarnogrod; le-zikaron ha-kehila ha-yehudit she-nehreva

Finding myself in Lublin when the war ended, I began to think about ways in which I, as a Jew, could travel to Tarnogrod, which entailed great dangers. At that time the Kelts pogrom also took place, costing the lives of forty Jews, and the anti-Semitic bands terrified every surviving Jew. Jews were warned not to ride trains until the hooliganism stopped.

But my heart was pained, and would not let me rest. Seeing the great catastrophe that had befallen the Jewish people, my desire to live was lost; but at the same time the Jew felt within himself the mission of continuing the lives of his slaughtered parents and relatives. Despite the most gruesome nightmares, he knew that he must continue living. To ride from Lublin to Tarnogrod with a beard like mine meant risking my life.

After considering all of the risks involved, I went to a barber and wept over my beard as it was cut off. I left long mustaches like those of a Polish peasant, put on peasant boots and a peasant cap, and set off for Tarnogrod at the end of May 1945.

I took the train as far as Zamoshtsh, where I met a few surviving Jews, slept at the home of a Jew, and set off on the train in the morning to Zvyezhinyets. From there I took the local train to Bilgoray.

It was hard for me to tell whether there was another Jew on the train. Perhaps he was disguised as a gentile, as I was. But all of the passengers were positive that there wasn't a single Jew on the train. It was hard to believe that a Jew would dare to travel on that line in those times.

When I arrived at Bilgoray, Polish coachmen stood in front of the station. They fell upon me, asking me where I was headed; each one wanted to take me. I stood mute for a while, searching with my eyes: perhaps Mendl Roshe's would appear, or Mendl Avel, or another of the Jewish coachmen of Tarnogrod, who used to drive to Bilgoray and back each day.

But my search was fruitless. None of them was left. Gentile wagons had taken their place. Having no other choice, I approached one of the Polish coachmen, and we settled on a fare to Tarnogrod. For a short while we both sat silently. He was the first to speak; I tried to answer as little as possible, so that he wouldn't realize I was a Jew. Then he pointed in front of himself with his whip and said:

“See, on both sides of the road are buried Jews whom the Germans shot. Jews from Tarnogrod, Bilgoray, and the surrounding villages lie there. The Germans knew what they were doing when they shot all the Jews. It was a good thing they did, and we should be grateful to them for it.”
The gentile sat talking with his back to me, and I sat as if petrified. As I looked around I saw that the entire road from Bilgoray to Tarnogrod was the same as before. Nothing had changed: the same houses, the same gentiles, the same women drawing water from their wells, just as before. Only the coachman wasn't the same. I no longer heard the rich Yiddish tongue and the Yiddish “Vyo, ferdelekh! Giddyap!” I no longer heard the melody of the prayer, “Let us give strength to the holiness of this day,” which Yoysef Magid used to sing as he rode with his passengers to Bilgoray. Depressed, I thought to myself: Where am I going, and to whom? Is there really no one left? Is it possible that an entire city of Jews was slaughtered?

Frozen in these tragic thoughts I arrived in Tarnogrod. I didn't want to ride straight into town, and asked the coachman to let me off near the factory at the Bilgoray gate.

There I met Sore Magram. She stood on the porch of her house, and looked at me without recognizing me. Seeing her, a Jewish woman of Tarnogrod, joy flooded through me for a moment. I approached her, told her who I was, and saw how she, too, was filled with the same joy.


[Pages 493 – 500]

On the Ruins of My Hometown, Tarnogrod
From a visit in 1964

Yekhezkel Agiert

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

 

Tar493.jpg

 

During the several decades that I lived in Brazil, I always dreamed of and strived to visit my hometown Tarnogrod, where I spent my childhood and youth, in good times and bad, hoping for better times, for a happy tomorrow.

And then came the day for which I had waited so long. My wife and I packed our bags, took leave of friends and comrades, and left Sao Paolo, Brazil, bound for Poland. On July 11, 1964 we sailed on the ship Augustus to Italy, where we took a train to Warsaw. We spent two weeks in Warsaw, where we met with acquaintances, visited various institutions and laid a wreath of flowers at the Warsaw Ghetto monument.

From there we went to Lublin, where we visited the Jewish Committee. Among the Committee activists I found many comrades [1] and acquaintances from my past. Since I was in Lublin, I decided to see the death camps where the German beasts killed our sisters and brothers. We took a car and within ten minutes we were at the Majdanek death camp.

There we encountered thousands of visitors from various parts of the country as well as many soldiers. I noticed that several soldiers wrote notes and placed them upon the graves. Curious to see what the notes said, I picked one up and read: “My dear people, I will never forget you, from me, Vasilevitsh.”

Passing through the housing blocks I saw in some of them packs of hair and braids that the executioners had shorn from the heads of their victims before they gassed them. My heart bled at this horrifying sight. I thought about how much love and tenderness their mothers gave their children, their family and friends. Now all that remained of their memory was a museum.

I did not have the strength to visit the other blocks. I broke down and wept bitterly. When I had recovered somewhat from the pain, we continued on. One of our escorts pointed to a hill and told me that under that hill were buried 18,000 Jews killed by the Nazis two days before liberation.

I was devastated by what I had seen and wanted to leave. I parted with my companions and one of them took me to the bus that went to Tarnogrod. When I got on the bus, I decided not to take it directly to Tarnogrod; it was a Sunday and I didn't want to arrive on a Sunday. So I decided to stay overnight in Bilgoraj. On the way, we drove through many towns familiar to me. Unfortunately, no Jews remained there. My heart was aching. Could it be true? Where did they go, my beloved Jews, comrades and friends, the young people who had filled these towns with life and struggle?

We arrived in Bilgoraj in the evening. I didn't recognize it, but the bus driver convinced me that we were in fact in Bilgoraj.

One of the passengers who got off the bus with me saw that I was a foreigner and asked me where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. I told him that I wanted to find a person who had lived on Tarnogrod Street. He took me there and found the person I was looking for. This was a close acquaintance and a former comrade. We had a short conversation. She asked if any of the comrades from Bilgoraj were still alive. I told her that sadly they had all died. I felt that this was very painful for her, and that she was suffering greatly. She asked me to forgive her for not being able to invite me to stay with her as her guest for at least a few days. She explained that her son, his wife and children had come from England to spend their vacation with her. We said goodbye, and I went back to the hotel, to wait for the next day's trip to Tarnogrod.

I waited a long time for a bus to Tarnogrod. There were no taxis or cars to rent, so I continued to wait. Suddenly a military vehicle with soldiers drove up. I asked them to stop and asked if they were driving to Tarnogrod and if so, if they would take me with them. They were going to Tarnogrod, and said I was very welcome to come with them.

When we arrived at Knishpoler Street I saw a sign. I asked the driver to stop for a moment so that I could take a closer look. I saw that it was the same sign that had been there several decades ago, just as I had left it. We drive on, and I started thinking: this little piece of tin had been luckier than a living person. The sign remained but the young people who frequented this spot, singing on this very street, no longer existed. The Nazi beasts destroyed their home and cut short the lives of the Jewish youth. From the car I could see peasants in the field harvesting grain, gathering the golden stalks. It seemed to me that the stalks were crying along with me over the misfortune that had befallen us.

We drove through a crossroads between Bilgoraj and the village of Bishte. I knew it well. The Jewish youth of the town would come here on the Sabbath to get together and enjoy themselves. How many wonderful songs were sung here, how much hope and yearning they experienced here.

At this same crossroads, on this very place, the crucifix with the figure of Christ still stood. Nothing had changed; he did not turn his head away from me, he did not feel guilty before me. The bridge was also the same. Under it there used to be a steady flow of cool water, but now it had dried up, even though it was raining. It appeared that no one came to swim in the waters of the stream. The church, too, stood in its place. It seemed to be asking, “To whom is he travelling, whom is he going to see?”

After travelling on for a while, we stopped and the driver announced that we were now in Tarnogrod. From what I saw, I didn't believe that I was already in my hometown. But this first impression changed as I gradually began to recognize the town. First, I recognized the small shops that had been built decades ago. I encountered a Christian and asked him where Lakhower Street was. He said I was standing on it, but that it was now called Kosciusko Street.

I still wanted to see the post office, which would help me better orient myself. Lost in thought, I suddenly realized that several Christians had approached and asked the man with whom I had been talking who this stranger was. In truth, I became a bit frightened and asked where the police station was. I soon arrived there, knocked on the door, and heard, “Enter.” I introduced myself, said that I was from abroad, had been born here in Tarnogrod and wanted to be taken to see my former home, the synagogue, the besmedresh [house of study, also used for worship], and the rabbi's house.

They said that they were all too young to know these things, that I should go to the municipality, where I would find people from the older generation who could give me information about the things I was interested in. One of the young police officers accompanied me there.

Inside the municipal offices, when I saw the new leaders of the town government, I didn't need any introductions. I recognized all of them. I almost shouted, “Oh, are you here?” I encountered all the old Tarnogrod residents I knew so well: Bien, Karpol, Tzap and others. We chatted. They didn't immediately recognize me and I told them who I was, that my mother's name was Khane and what merchandise she dealt in. They immediately remembered and told me that she wasn't called Khane [by the Poles], but Yosvova. We argued about her name for a while, until I recalled that she was in fact known as Yosvova.

While we were talking a young man came in, greeted me, and said that his colleague had told him about my arrival, and that I had worked for Yekl Magran. Hearing this, I wanted to get more details and, excusing myself to the members of the municipality, asked the young man to join me for a glass of tea. We went to a bar–restaurant where all the tables were occupied by peasants drinking beer, many of them already quite drunk. I withdrew from the conversation, said goodbye to my acquaintance and set out to return to the municipality.

On the way, I encountered a lot of people. Each one introduced himself. I didn't want to call them by their names –– that would have shown more respect than they deserved. Soon there were about ten people standing around me; they accompanied me to my former home.

When we got to the house a Christian woman emerged. She was living in the house formerly owned by Sakhile the tailor, which stood behind ours. My companions introduced me to the woman and told her that I was born and had lived in this house and had come from abroad to see the town of my birth. The woman asked, “What do they want, the crucifiers[i.e., the Jews]? There aren't any of them left here.” I saw with whom I was dealing so I refrained from talking to her. One of my companions indicated to her, with a gesture, that she shouldn't say anything more.

From there I set off with my companions to look around the town. On the land where there had once stood the houses of Shaye–Leib, Shmayele the Tailor, my uncle Faiwel Bas, the cripple Yankl the tailor, where they used to bake matzo – that entire area was now an empty parcel overgrown with weeds.

We came to the place where the besmedresh had once stood; it had been converted into a hotel. The women's section had been completely dismantled by the Germans; a few stones were the sole remaining trace.

The Tailors' Synagogue was empty and desolate. Outside the synagogue, they had set up a green market where a Christian man was selling potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes and other fruit. I wanted to see the inside. One of my companions obtained a key and we went in. It was heartbreaking to see what the Fascists had done to our property. The balemer [desk from which Torah is read] was gone; the Torah ark was in pieces. The lonely wind whistled and wailed.

My thoughts brought me back to my town as it was years ago. I pictured the time of the high holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, how the Jews packed the synagogue, praying for health, livelihood a year of peace. I imagined the women in the gallery, standing and praying, reaching out their hands to me in greeting. I could not answer, my tongue froze. I leaned against the wall and wept.

A voice inside me called out to my landslayt [fellow townspeople] all over the world not to forget, not to forgive the Nazis, to take revenge on them for spilling the blood of our people and destroying our homes.

We left the synagogue and arrived at the rabbi's house, with its large courtyard and garden. The rabbi had a big family and in the house there had lived sons, daughters, sons–in–law, daughters–in–law and grandchildren. The house was always filled with visitors who came to the rabbi to consult on various matters. Now none of them was left. A Christian now lived there. Oh, what had become of it!

We continued on. A radio station had been built where there once stood Ite–Leibele's house. Not far away stood the house of Yankele the Royfer [a medical paraprofessional], now boarded up. The building that had belonged to Fishl Koniazh had been converted into a hospital. The large market square no longer existed. The entire area – once occupied by the municipality, the buildings owned by Yekl Magram, Hersh Shaye–Leib, all the way up to the Mantl family's house – all of it was under construction. I wasn't interested to know what was being built there.

We walked on. I encountered many people who asked me, “What is the gentleman doing here?” I asked them where I could find the mass grave [in which the Jews were buried]. They said they didn't know. I asked them to show me Leibish Koval's house. We arrived there, but no one was there. Near it stood the house of a village Jew named Leibish Flis; no one was there.

I continued with my companions toward Shaye Zeinwale's garden, where we encountered a Christian woman who said she knew where the mass grave was. I was introduced to the woman, and she recognized that I was truly Yosvove's son. We asked her to show us the location of the grave of my mother and other Jewish women murdered by the Fascists.

Leading us to the grave, she told us that once a teacher came to her and told her that the Nazis wanted to bury the murdered Jews in her garden, and he asked her to refuse. She promised to do so. Later, however, a Gestapo officer came to her and informed her that the murdered Jews would be buried in her garden.

When she told him that she didn't want that, he chuckled and said, “Why not? You can be sure that afterwards your garden will yield the best cabbage.”

In that garden lay the mass grave of our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, all killed by the Nazi beasts. My companions gradually began to relate the atrocities committed by the Nazis, how they mercilessly killed their victims. A Nazi had thrown Yisroelke Pelts' daughter to the ground and placed his booted foot on her throat, strangling her. There were other such horrifying crimes which the murderers inflicted on the Jews.

I found several more houses that had belonged to Jews; these were Bromberger, the baker, and the Jew who manufactured oil. They were locked and nailed shut.

Walking on Lakhower Street, I saw that it had been completely reconstructed. It now had a children's school, which was closed for vacation. On the way I met a lot of women who, seeing a foreigner, wanted to talk to me. From their manner of speaking, I sensed that they wanted to provoke me, so I avoided conversing with them.

There were a lot of Christians who I knew still wanted to meet with me, but I didn't have the patience to stay any longer. I decided to leave my little town. I was tired, exhausted from my experience and I left Tarnogrod. I traveled to Lublin where my wife was waiting for me. From there we went to Wroclaw.

Let it be noted that I have written this in tears, let it be a reminder not to forget, not to forgive our deadly enemies who murdered one third of our people. Let it also be a consolation for all my landslayt, for all Jews, that we were fortunate enough to see Hitler's downfall and the regeneration of the Jewish land.

Footnote:

  1. The Yiddish word translated here and elsewhere in this article as “comrade” is khaver, and has several definitions, including friend, or a fellow member of a group or organization, among others. It bears no connotation, as it might in American English, of a particular political affiliation. Return


[Pages 501 – 503]

A Word and a Tear
In memory of my mother, who was killed by the Nazi murderers

by Yekhezkel Agiert

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

It has already been 35 years since I left my home for faraway Brazil. Each passing day, my thoughts were with my home and with the people with whom I spent my childhood and who remained there, in the hellfire of the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

Just five weeks ago I saw the crematoria of Majdanek and Auschwitz, and I still cannot free myself of the distress that I suffered there.

I had always longed and tried to meet someone from my town who had survived. You can imagine my joy when I met some surviving landslayt [fellow townspeople] for the first time 16 years ago in North America. In my talks with these survivors I learned about the catastrophe that befell our town, about what happened to my family, and my dear mother, whom the Nazis killed in a mass grave. The entire time I was tortured by the longing to visit her grave and recite the Kaddish [prayer for the dead], as every mother deserves from her children.

On August 15, 1964, I arrived in the ruined town of Tarnogrod, which had once held such love and charm and where each person was bound to another as true comrades. How forlorn had you become, my dear, warmhearted little Jewish town.

I was taken around by the town's current leaders, who during the war were almost as bad as the Germans.[1] I could have done without their help, but the Polish government wanted to honor me, as a native of the town. They – the holders of power – did not want to tell me where my mother's grave was. It was only when I pointed to the location that I had learned about from my surviving landslayt that they confirmed it by nodding their agreement.

I entered the garden of the house that had belonged to Shaye, the son of Zanvel, the shoemaker. There among the gardens, lies the shared mass grave and within it, my mother's resting place. I wanted to cry out and tell her: Here stands before you your son Yekhezkel Berish, as you so lovingly called me. I wanted to tell her that she had become a grandmother. Listen, to how your grandchild calls you, Bobeshi [Granny], and pleads with you to cuddle him, to press him to your heart.

You did not live to see that happen. I went to look for you in your house; I found only grass. I went to look for you in the synagogue, where you had a permanent seat. It was empty and abandoned. I looked to see if you had perhaps accepted my invitation to my son's upcoming wedding. Why aren't you there, tossing nuts [at the bridegroom].[2] Aren't you rejoicing?

I looked around and saw nothing but cold stones, and a shudder shook my body. How alone you were. For the twenty years since your death, no one had lit candles at your grave.

Five weeks later, I met up with your son Avrom and we took comfort in the continuation of life, and in the thought that mothers will no longer suffer so. I am now in Israel, where your son Avrom came 40 years ago to build the land, so that Jews can be proud. Your landslayt are also here. They were fortunate to survive in a land where we finally feel at home.

So I wish my landslayt a happy and peaceful life in the secure and healthy Jewish state forever. Best wishes, my dear warmhearted landslayt, who have not been forgotten by us, survivors in far away Brazil.

Footnotes:

  1. The Yiddish term used by the author to describe the current Polish leaders of the town is “the former halbe-retsikhim [literally 'half-murderers'.”] Return
  2. A probable reference to the pre-wedding aufruf ceremony where the bridegroom is called up to read the Torah and is showered with candy and nuts. Return


[Page 504]

Surviving Auschwitz

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

In Tarnogrod, as in many towns, the Nazi murderers tortured the Jews and killed them on the spot, separately and in mass graves. All the roads leading out of Tarnogrod were soaked with Jewish blood. The few Jews who tried to escape were often betrayed to the Germans by their Polish neighbors. Some were killed on the spot; others were sent to the death camps.

In those years, Tarnogrod Jews were also living in other towns, including Lublin and Warsaw. There, too, they fell into the hands of the murderers. Eli Mantl was in Paris when the war broke out. But there, too, like thousands of other Jews, he wound up in the train transports to the camps.

 

tar504a.JPG

Eli Mantl. In the 1930's he was the secretary of the kehile [organized Jewish community] in Tarnogrod, until he left for Paris, from which he was sent by the Germans to the death camp at Auschwitz. He lives today in Paris, maintaining his ties to the association of landslayt from Tarnogrod. From time to time he visits Israel, where the majority of the survivors of the Tarnogrod Jewish community live.

 

Every train car was crammed full of people, without food or drink, without a bit of air. Locked in the cars, they did not know where they were being taken, until the train stopped, the doors opened and the S.S. soldiers with whips in their hands drove them out of the wagons with shouts, curses and blows.

A selection was held on the spot. Some were sent directly to death, to the gas ovens, and others had to undergo all the sufferings of a horrific hell. Among the rare individuals who emerged alive was Eli Mantl. What he suffered was typical, perhaps with some variations, for hundreds of thousands. Some of them were able to write their memoirs, a tale written in blood, not ink. An entire folk died in horror and catastrophe. And sharing this fate were the Jews of Tarnogrod, from which all roads led to fearsome slaughter.

 

tar504b.JPG

Max Levinger, after liberation from the Bergen Belson concentration camp, at the departure of a transport to Israel


[Pages 505-519]

In the Footsteps of the Town
Which is No More

by Amnon Dror

Translated by Sara Mages

Before we left for Poland, a Jew asked us to go to a certain town and look there for a Pole who fifteen years ago received a sum of money from him to place, once a week, a bouquet of flowers on his father's grave. The Jew asked that we go to the cemetery, and if we find out that the Pole is keeping his promise, he would send him extra dollars so that he can continue laying the flowers on the grave.

We still did not know then that this request would bring us, after the tour of Poland, to an understanding of the significance of the Jewish problem, which does not let go of Poland and its Jews to this day.

We toyed then with the hope that we were about to meet the Jewish town, as we knew it in our childhood and adolescence from endless stories and descriptions. After all, in one way or another, we are all connected to the Jewish town in a bond of nostalgia. We travel to it, even if we have never seen it before, as we travel to a childhood friend. But, it did not work out. We did not find, although we searched and visited many towns, a starting point and a sufficient grip, from which we can recreate and rehabilitate in our imagination a Jewish town steeped in folklore and life, cramped with its rich and blessed with the joy of its poor. Because, as is well known, thousands of small and large towns have long since become cemeteries, and over time also the cemeteries were destroyed and no trace was left of most of them.

In Warsaw I knew an elderly couple, sick and poor, who were trying to maintain a kind of an archive of documents and photographs of cemeteries in the various stages of their destruction. But soon they would not be able to continue this activity, and there will be no one to register the destruction of the Jewish cemeteries.

I myself have experienced a very bleak testimony. I strolled the streets of the wonderful resort town of Kazimierz, which was, and still is, a source of inspiration for artists and poets, among them some of the best Jewish artists. Kazimierz was once a typical Jewish town, and in the words of a Polish writer, it had shops where you could only find one large barrel of pickled cucumbers, and nothing else. In Kazimierz, at the end of the slope that rises from the town center, there is a Catholic monastery. A stone path leads to it, and when I climbed it I discovered that I was walking on Hebrew letters, on what were once gravestones in the local cemetery. I leaned over a tombstone, cleared with my fingers the sand that filled the carved letters and read: “Here lies buried the most honest man…” I later learned that someone approached the monastery's management and the local municipality and asked them to remove the gravestones from the sidewalk, and the answer was: “Please, just give us other paving stones.” And there is no institution, organization or a Jewish person, who has the power in today's Poland to carry out this simple thing. The beautiful synagogue in Kazimierz has been renovated and is currently used as a cinema. In another town I entered to what was once a synagogue, and discovered that I was in the heart of the regional center for fruit and vegetable distribution. Some of the workers at this center, men and women, remembered the town's Jews by their first names. They stared at us and kept quiet, one of the town's veterans told us that the synagogue is a “historic place” and therefore it was not damaged. Synagogues, and cemeteries, in all the towns (and if we are not mistaken - except for Lublin, Krakow and Zamo, and maybe other half a dozen) had a similar fate. Many others were destroyed by the Germans and others by the locals and the rest are being destroyed and disappear in the absence of anyone to take care of them.

Typical is maybe the fate of the ancient Jewish cemetery in Lublin. A high wall surrounded it all around and only a lock was needed to protect it, to lock the gate that was preserved, but there was no one who could take care of that lock, and the cemetery was abandoned. In Praga, a suburb of Warsaw across the Vistula stood, for a long time, the famous local synagogue. There was a plan to turn it into a museum and Yosef Sandel and his wife collected, with great dedication, pictures and paintings with the intention of housing them in the museum. But in Jewish Poland - as it is today - there was no one to take care of it even though the Polish authorities showed a willingness to help with the establishment of the museum. The synagogue was demolished and eventually made way for practical and workable plans.

 

In the Streets and Alleys of Tarnogrod

We wandered from town to town, drove north and were close to Belz across the border. We were in Plock near Posk, in Bilgoraj - and we asked in vain what was kept in our hearts from the town. A kind-hearted farmer led us through the streets and alleys of Tarnogrod, between the wooden houses and thatched roofs, to the heart the same mixture of shops and animals and told us: “Malka'le Konigstein was imprisoned, before she was executed, together with my wife … and on cold nights, on an empty stomach, Malka'le calmed her down and sang “The sun is setting in flames...”” Then, passed by us what was once an institution in the town - a water carrier who, as in those days, carried a yoke and buckets. The local farmer pointed at a roof of a house and said: “I live here. A Jewish family lived here before the war. Do you see on the roof a kind of square cover? The Jews removed it on the holiday of Sukkot and put the covering of the sukkah under it… For thirty-two years the cover was not taken off the roof and the overhanging branches turned the whole roof into one piece.

Not far away is the town of Gur (Góra). In the courtyard of the Admor [spiritual leader in the Hasidic movement], whose cleverness and wisdom went beyond the confines of the Jewish community and were famous throughout Poland, hundreds and thousands of Hassidim congregated from Friday to the end of Sabbath. Carriages and carts, which brought the Jews of the city and the surrounding towns, gathered around the courtyard. Around thirty to forty percent of the non-Jewish residents somehow integrated in the joy, helped and harnessed, sold and bought. Today, we cannot recognize the home of the Gerrer Rebbe, and not his famous shtiebel. In the first years after the war Polish citizens lived in houses, in the shadow of the Hebrew inscriptions that adorned the shtiebel, and in the end they were also removed. No name and trace of his past remained on the house.

The disappointment that accompanies the search for the remains of a town reminds me an excerpt from a book by the Polish-Jewish writer Adolf Rudnicki. He tells about a Polish-Jewish poet who during the war lives on the Aryan area and enters the ghetto to see everything with his own eyes, to live everything and to describe. But he was caught and cooperates. And so he explains himself: “I came to the ghetto to give evidence… as if humanity lacks evidence... if ever someone will wants to describe it all, he would be told: a small and awful Jewish nation, stop talking nonsense about your suffering… Your sufferings are natural and do not interest anyone...”

There is a real secret in the statement this literary figure, and not the truth in terms of justice, but the truth in terms of historical human experience. Poland itself is very busy. The authorities are intensively searching for the right socialist formula for the Polish people, and most of the people are preoccupied with the war of existence. The chapters of the Holocaust are integrated into the education system, and it seems that they are not hidden or skipped. But the Jewish people, among them thirty thousand Polish Jews, do not want, unable and do not believe, that they will influence Poland to devote much more attention, money and efforts to preserve the memory of Jews and Judaism, which have long been a living organ of the Polish body and state.

The authorities do not reject the initiative, and often show a great deal of understanding, but the few initiators, maybe naturally, are all Jewish survivors, weak and poor. When walking like this between the towns, there is no escape from the thought that only the State of Israel, and no other body apart from it can save, preserve and nurture what is left. And the matter is simple and technically easy, and it seems that the financial means will also be easily found. I have no doubt, that if there would be an address and financial means - there will also be a lock for the gates of the old cemetery in Lublin, gravestones will be collected, monuments will be erected, booklets and textbooks will be published. I do not think of a more vital and beneficial investment than this, because it is the one who will bring the mature Polish youth, him and his friends, along with relatives and the tourists. It will stop them before a gravestone, a monument and a chapter in a book. So that they may reflect, even for a moment and inadvertently, on what was once the Polish Jew.

 

The Pinkas [Registry]

A small handful of Jews, who also need a good opportunity and luck, still manage to save remnants and testimonies. We found a lonely and miserable man who collects prayer shawls and Torah scrolls and does not know what to do with them. We met an elderly couple who have been collecting photographs of Jewish ritual articles for several years. The Jewish Historical Institute Warsaw is working diligently on historical research and searching for evidence. Zero, in the absence of sufficient means and information they also depend on the grace of gentiles who decide, for whatever reason, to reveal, sell some assets or uncover a hidden chapter. It so happened that one day near the time of my visit to Poland, a Pole appeared holding in his hand a valuable historical asset that he had no idea what it was. He laid on the table “Pinkas HaHevrah” [the “Society Registry”] of the town of Nasielsk, took 1000 zloty in return, and left without anyone asking him how the Pinkas got into his hands and what motivated him to sell it right now. And so I, and others like me, who are exploring the remains of the Jewish town, had the opportunity to get to know the other side of the Jewish town, to peek into the depths of its structure, feel its continuity and uniqueness. For hundreds of years, Jewish craftsmen in hundreds of towns used to write in “Pinkas HaHevrah,” the craftsmen's registry, the course of events, internal laws, the regulations requiring a Jewish craftsman towards his people, towards the landowner and the environment. The Pinkas was usually written in Hebrew rich in expression, and also incorporated words in Yiddish and the local language. Over the years the Pinkasim [pl. registries] were burnt together with the wooden synagogue and, from time to time, a new Pinkas was opened. The Pinkas handed over by the Pole was that of the tailors and furriers in Nasielsk, and written in sequels, mostly by the judge, in years1753 to 1841. It lists the reasons why a certain tailor was deprived of the right to vote for the society, and from another person - the permission to ascend to the Torah for three years, and it describes the act of a certain person who disobeyed the law. As in the rest of “Pinkasi HaHevrah,” it was also noted in this one that a copy was also kept in the Polish language. And that the minister, that is to say, the owner of the local estate, approved its contents with his signature.

We browsed for a long time in this instructive pinkas, which was 200 years old, and imagined that we - the natives of the State of Israel - are diving and delving into the intricacies of the complex concept called a town. “After all, it is known - the pinkas opens - that the society of tailors, kirznirs (furriers) and schmuklers [traders for haberdashery products] was founded in the year 5513 by the abbreviated era [1753] and they've had a pinkas since then, and this pinkas was burnt and in the year 5527 [1767] we investigated and founded another pinkas for the members of the society and we still have it, but we, the members of the society, saw with our own eyes that there is no beauty in this pinkas and it is also not organized properly and correctly, and since we did not come to establish unseemly things, we, the members of society, young to old, we all agreed to fix a new pinkas that would be nice an pleasant in the eyes of the seers…” And below: “all of us agree to accept the preacher, our teacher the rabbi R' Yakov, to be our leader, to judge us whenever we have a trial and to obey him in all...” The eighth regulation in the pinkas says: “On every Sabbath Kodesh each and every member of the society, they and their workers, must come to the synagogue to hear a lesson, so that they would not walk idly in the streets and stroll in the markets, which brings the person into bad offenses, controversy and slander, and other bad things. And whoever is in his house on the Sabbath and does not come to hear the lesson, he is obliged to give a fine, half a golden [zloty] for the synagogue's candles.”

And here is another regulation, which holds the answer to the many questions of those who wanted to know how Judaism was preserved in the Diaspora: “Every Sabbath eve every craftsman, his workers and apprentices, must stop their work, and no tool shall be seen on the table, and they have permission to do their work until the society's shamash comes to warn them that our gabbai needs to send the shamash to each and every one to stop them from their work. And if the shamash comes to warn them three hours after mid-daylight (noon), and if would happen that someone will say, I am desperate for this thing and he, or his workers and apprentice, will continue their work, then this man will be punished four golden by the court (of the minister-landowner), but if it appears that this work is needed and he forced to do his work three hours after mid-daylight, or more, then he is exempt from punishment...”

The society's pinkas contains within it a whole world. It unfolds before you a complex tradition, customs and way of life which were handed down from generation to generation in the same town. And there were thousands of towns in Poland, and there was not a single town in which there was not at least one minyan of Jews.

The society's pinkas, which was rescued and redeemed by chance, helped us, to some extent, to understand the town, grasp its greatness and feel the significance of its absence.

 

Conversations and Sights

The forest borders the extermination camp. Birkenau extends from it onwards. Human ash covers the roads, nourishes the weeds that grows on the same soil, as far as can be seen around.

The young Jew, who was once imprisoned in nearby Auschwitz, is today an American citizen. We followed him. From time to time he stopped walking and said as if he was talking to himself: “In this place I am sure that the soil is not saturated with ashes and bones. Here the soil is not so scorching. Here, I am at least sure that I am not stepping on my parents' ashes.”

It rained in Birkenau, during my visit to the place, on the remains of the ruined crematorium, on the surviving barbed wire fence, on the mounds of ashes and the monuments. The drops were absorbed in the soil mixed with the ash. At the edge of the forest there is a small lake. It was deeper before hundreds of bodies and bones were thrown into it. We got down on our knees drew from the water a handful of thin human bones. The water flowed through our fingers, and the young Jew said that it was possible that he was now holding his father's bones in his palm.

Somewhere, about fifty meters from the lake, was once “Canada.” “We called this place by that name because it was relatively safe there, the prisoners worked and received food,” the young man recounted pointing at what had survived from that illusion. Hundreds of rusty dishes were scattered on the grass. For some reason they were not collected during the seventeen years that have passed. Soon the grass will cover them.

Before that I visited Auschwitz for a long time. Shortly after arriving at the camp’s gate the young American introduced himself to me. He said that he was visiting this place for the second time and immediately led me to the “death block” where he was imprisoned. At the rear of the room was a reinforced concrete wall and thousands of people were executed next to it. The windows adjoining it were covered with wooden boards. The American Jew remembers every detail and explains that the windows were covered with wood boards so that the prisoners would not know the meaning of the frequent shots near their window. “Whenever the block commander asked us to move to the other side of the room, we knew that shots would be heard soon.”

Then, we stood in front of the pile of suitcases. The young man pinned his head to the glass window and his eyes wandered from one suitcase to the other. From Gutman to Meirovitz, to Zuckerman, to Cohen and Goldman. He was looking for his suitcase. We continued up the hair pavilion, to the awful pile of pairs of shoes.

I spent a lot of time in the company of a former Auschwitz prisoner. We moved from one block to another, from exhibit to exhibit, and finally stopped to let the one who made his way here from faraway New York to present his claim.

 

Majdanek

I will open this article with a short description of my visit in Majdanek, although I do not ignore the danger that the reader will reach conclusions devoid of any justification and intent.

I searched for the death camp for a long time. Longer than it took to get to a nearby suburb of Lublin from which I had left. This may be due to the lack of proper signage and also the roads in this area were defective and, at the same time, were in the midst of repairs. When I finally got to the nearest residential area, which was certainly not a town or an independent neighborhood, I asked passers-by for the way to Majdanek. They looked very surprised and replied that I was in Majdanek itself. Meaning, once again the thought-determination was confirmed, that in Poland - both options are obvious: to the casual resident of the town of Majdanek, which is one of the thousands of towns in Poland, it is obvious that we ask about the town of Majdanek. The mental mechanism is constructed in such a way that it is not at all conceivable that a stranger, in a foreign car, who is arriving in this area, may be interested only in the Majdanek death camp which is adjacent to the town. While for a Jew and an Israeli it is obvious that a resident of the place immediately understands that the stranger can only be interested in the death camp (and it has happened before, that a local young man told me in good faith that he collected blueberries in the Auschwitz forests, and he did not, of course, imagine that it was simply impossible to collect blueberries in Auschwitz forests).

This situation, an encounter with “neutrality” of such a nature, is quite common in the journey of a Jewish and Israeli visitor, and this article will actually discuss that, because it is one of the components of the fact that there was not one Jew, especially a former resident of Poland, who did not ask us rhetorically, how a Jew can return, or visit, Poland. Not to mention the thousands who live there permanently.

 

In the Death camp

I needed a different wording and asked where the “lager” [camp] was, and only then I was shown the way. The camp is located on a wide plain, in an agricultural area, that on each side, to the edge of the fence and the guard towers, the farmers cultivate their fields. Several sheaves of grain were arranged within the boundaries of the camp itself, in the place where some of the hundreds of barracks once stood. A smooth concrete road, on which no vehicle or a person were seen, deviated from the main road and ran hundreds of meters along the barbed wire fence until it reached the memorial mound. I drove very slowly and looked at the camp to my right, at the huts that were similar to each other, at the dirt roads between them, at the thorns that had grown in the meantime. No living soul was seen in the area at this late afternoon hour and only beyond that smoke rose from the chimneys of the factories, and workers riding their bicycles passed as they do every day.

At the end of the road, next to the memorial mound, the road turned right and fifty meters later, on a low hill, next to a large wooden structure with a chimney extending from its center- I stopped. A wind blew and a soothing silence reigned all around, resting on the death camp.

I turned to the wooden structure whose nature was easy to guess and, suddenly, a man in his fifties came out of the doorway. He was wearing tattered uniform, carried a rifle on his shoulders and a pungent odor of alcohol wafted from his mouth. The drunken guard led me inside, to the crematoria. He pointed, swaying, at the six ovens that had been preserved intact. He held the stretchers that half of them were inside the oven and with a rough drunken hand began to drive the stretchers back and forth in a loud sound, in and out to demonstrate their action. Six times so and so corpses, twenty minutes each cycle - calculated the drunken guard and did not let go of the stretcher.

Darkness prevailed inside the crematorium and the guard volunteered to show me the second room. “Here hundreds of thousands got undressed, here they bathed, here - in this big hall, the strangled bodies were piled up and then dragged to the crematorium.” And then, when the irrational vision which was reveled against the backdrop of loneliness, darkness and a lone guard, began to weigh, I saw through a dark opening leading to the gas chamber, behind an uprooted door which was leaning against the wall, human bones lying disorderly on the floor, limbs and skulls, as they were found in that gas chamber on the day of liberation. I “took advantage” of my guide's drunkenness and begged him to lift the door and let me peek inside. He hesitated a little, leaned his rifle against the wall and lifted the door. And inside the gloom, on the floor of the gas chamber, inside a large bathtub, piles of piles were placed what had once been the corpse, what the gas and time had left.

* * *

When I returned to the main road I met a worker who was leaning against the crematorium and painting the iron parts in fresh paint. The human bones were kept with the intention of storing them in a permanent museum. For some reason this has not been done so far. I later received a more detailed explanation from a group of people I met on my way back to the camp. I drove to them in my car on the bumpy dirt road. A cheerful young couple passed by and a peasant woman laden with a sheaf of grain on her back. One of the people who came out of the hut approached me and asked, for some reason, if he could speak Russian with me and said that he is the architect who oversees the renovation work of the museum. Majdanek - he explained - the huts, buildings, accessories and the ovens will become a large museum.

I returned to Lublin.

* * *

In the last years I visited several concentration camps. I was once in Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, Dachau and Bergen Belsen in Germany, Auschwitz in Poland, and the Gestapo's torture cellars in Warsaw. In most of these places the evidence was arranged for display, I saw them lying on shelves with explanatory notes next to them, behind glass or grille. Only in Majdanek, which is being restored, I found mounds of bones lying on the ground, piled in a bathtub, as they were found on the day of liberation. And maybe that’s why the vision is so shocking and the response so complex. And between you and me, in disorder, you ask questions, why so far the authorities have not taken care of the establishment of the museum, and is it really possible to make do with one drunk policeman who wandered disrespectfully around the bones?! On the other hand - how can people isolate themselves from the camp they see in the morning, at noon, in the evening; from where does a normal person draw the strength to live so close to death; how did not a shred of Majdanek stick to the young couple who crossed the camp to its width! And who knows the human soul, maybe, after all, every local resident carries in his heart the desire to escape one day as far as possible to start anew on a different land, a new chapter of life.

* * *

The subjective impressions cannot obscure a single dry basic fact - that today the authorities are investing efforts in order to turn Majdanek into a museum, to an historic educational place for teens and adults.

And at this point the question arises - “How a Jew, born in Poland, can continue to live on Polish soil?”

We will try below to encompass the question from its various sides, but it is doubtful whether we will know how to answer it. In any event - despite the years that have passed, it is surprisingly relevant, just as the Holocaust, its reflection in literature, in people's conversation, in official policy, is the legacy of the present.

* * *

In this regard the town of Majdanek can symbolize “Polish” Poland, the daily life of the people, the obstacles facing the authorities in the realization of socialism and the fact that, after all, the problems of Poland are not Jewish but the problems of the Polish nation. The camp's drunken guard undoubtedly belongs to this area and he represents one of the problems. The “lager” and the death camps, on the other hand, maybe represent the central subject that preoccupies the Polish authorities, the intellectuals and the literature, and to a large extent the people themselves in the broad field called people's education. The extermination of the Jews on Polish soil, sometimes with the passive and active assistance of Polish citizens, and the fact that Judaism and the Jews have been an integral part of the way of life for centuries, constitute, without a doubt, the forefront of the problem in this field, both in terms of its sharpest and most extreme expression.

At first glance, the two domains are a kind of coexistence of situations that cannot be connected. Much like the existence of the camp with the human bones scattered in the gas chamber, right next to the town of Majdanek, with its problems and customs, which remind us of every other Polish town.

The Jew arriving in Poland immediately encounters this situation; he is hurt due to the lack of a “bridge” between the two areas; he does not understand how eighteen years have passed and not a single memorial plaque has been erected in Majdanek for the hundreds of thousands of Jews. Why the negotiations for the establishment of a Jewish pavilion in Auschwitz, in which two and a half million Jews were exterminated, is taking so long, and why are the roots of anti-Semitism so slowly being uprooted. This, it seems, is the background to the reluctance of so many to visit what was once their homeland, apart from, of course, the personal memories.

And this too: the Second World War, with its results and memory, has not ended here yet. During all my visits I felt that in this country it is still too early to open a new chapter, to move the page, as has already been done in some countries in Europe and perhaps also in Germany.

The Jew is not the only one who is sensitive to the daily whistle of a train traveling between a city and a town. It mentions the role of the trains, perhaps of all the trains in Poland, even those traveling today, in the extermination of the people. Very often the events of those days come to life and the attention is turned to what is being enjoyed here with great hatred- “Nazism” or “Fascism.”

 

Those Who Rescued

One day a new museum was opened and it is announced that a certain site has been restored or renovated, and from time to time bouquets of flowers are placed on the graves of the fallen on street corners. And another example: a book written by two Jewish scholars will soon appear in Poland. It discusses the question of the extent to which the Polish people extended relief and aid to the Jews during the war. If I am not mistaken, the authors assume that about twenty Gentiles on average participated in the rescue of every Jew. Every child, or adult, who was hidden, passed from hand to hand, or his documents were forged and he was provided with food and clothing. All this involved the knowledge of twenty people. Since, with the liberation, between fifty and seventy thousand Jews were found in Poland, with the exception of the liberated from the concentration camps, at least one million Poles took an active part in rescuing the Jews.

I know that quite a few will say that this number is exaggerated especially from the fact that the book is funded and distributed by the government. It is also of great interest because the Polish authorities do not shy away from bringing this issue up for debate, and for bringing it into the consciousness of the citizens and perhaps as a matter for conscience and concern.

The Jewish Historical Institute can serve as an example to the good intentions of the authorities with regard to the rights of the Jews as a small minority, which was once large and influential. The diverse literature issued by the Institute, the annual budget amounting to 700,000 zlotys, the building, the permanent exhibition and the salaries provided by the state, all of these are a unique expression in this political area, of the recognition by the authorities of the cultural, and perhaps national, needs of the Jews, except that it is the fruit of a burdensome morality.

But those, who see the Jewish Institute as an expression of cultural activity and national awakening, are wrong. The Institute undoubtedly does immeasurably important work. Starting with a comprehensive research on the life of the Jews from the 17th century, systematic photography of Jewish sites throughout Poland, the printing of books and pamphlets, among them all of Emanuel Ringelblum's writings published this year and much more. But it lacks the same vitality that is only possible when there is a lively connection with an awakened community, with an interested readership and public. But since these are not and the approximately 30,000 Jews scattered throughout Poland do not coalesce into an organized minority with representation and an address, the Jewish Institute mentions a lonely island, from which the projections projected are not absorbed.

If we want, this is another side of the same unbridgeable coexistence that casts sadness on the stay of a Jewish visitor in Poland. He realizes that the integration of the Jews, in which the theorists were so confident at the time is, in this case, nothing more than an empty word. And what is easy to bring dozens of examples of Jews, whose souls are divided, and most of whom are loyal to the regime and believe in its future.

We have often been asked about the number of Jews in Poland, and it seems to me that even presenting this question, and the inability to answer it with certainty, illuminates another side of the problem. It is simply not technically possible to count the young. Many live to this day in small and remote towns, quite a few young people do not know about their Judaism, many choose to stay away from any Jewish institution, organization or newspaper. Only a small and insignificant number visits the few synagogues or participates in the educational effort of several communities, especially in Lodz. Things got to the point where a group of Jewish activists, to which I belonged, tried to count the number of Hebrew speakers in Warsaw and, in a joint effort, reached a number of nine.

In this situation it is not necessary to debate if there is a future for Jewish life in Poland, just as it is unnecessary to try to prove that a million Poles took part in rescuing Jews.

One meeting, like many others, might express our feelings on this issue. We stopped our car on Marszakowska Street and asked a passerby if he could guide us to the Jewish Historical Institute. Instead of replying, the man put his hand on the door handle, peeked inside, asked if he could enter and said: Drive! On the way he asked us if we were from Israel, what is the situation and his voice was excited and his eyes shone. Then we asked if he was Jewish, and to our surprise he said no. But only a hundred meters later, he asked to give his greetings to his sister who lives in Jaffa, and also to his cousin in Haifa.

 

The Treasures of the Lonely Jew in Leajsk

The town seemed to hold its breath for a moment. the barbers, the salesmen, the passers-by, those who rested on a benches of the municipal park - all stopped what they were doing and looked at us with curiosity, impudence and a slightest hint of provocation, but none in a look of kindness and understanding. Because, at that time, the only Jew of the city of Leajsk, Baruch Sapir, stood bent over our car and urged us in Yiddish to hurry away from there, from the cold and strange eyes of the townspeople who began to push from all sides. We started the car and left behind us 55 yeat old Baruch Sapir, with his long white-beard, awkward gait and refined virtues. To be precise - we left him with a heavy burden in our heart, as if we had left a wounded man on the battlefield.

* * *

We were about ten miles from Leajsk. In a small town named Tarnogrod, one of the many in which Jews lived. Sixty years ago our parents were born there, forty years ago they emigrated from there with the first halutzim, and twenty years ago all the Jews were murdered in the town's streets. We went to the elders and asked where our relatives lived, where they traded, how they were murdered and where they were buried. We went to the synagogue, wandered, for no reason in the alleys, between the wooden houses and the thatched roofs, and stopped by a carrier of yoke and buckets next to loaded carts in the “rynek” [market] in the central square. Several townspeople wanted to help us, remembered a certain act and anonymous person, showed us where our grandfather's store stood and where the bodies were piled up, and while talking, we have been told that a Jew lives in the nearby city of Leajsk, maybe a rabbi named Sapir, and he knows the history of the Jews in all the towns in of eastern Poland. Therefore, we set out to look for the Jew. We drove through fields near busy farmers, got on a ferry that took us to the other bank of the San River and continued towards Leajsk. The first person who happened to be on our way to the entrances of the city knew immediately to reply that, indeed, they have a bearded Jew named Sapir and he lives on Main Street. And when we stopped there, one of the people pointed towards the entrance to an old building and said that this is where the Jew lives, but he likes to wander and it is possible that he is not at home. At that moment we saw a man with a white beard slipping into the entrance as he was holding two large silver Chanukah menorahs in his hand. We followed him into the building's dark entrance, climbed a wooden staircase and knocked on the door. And when it opened, the marvelous figure of Baruch Sapir stood before us, a man with large body, blue eyes, white beard that curled around his face and was dressed in tattered clothes. When he heard us saying “Shalom Aleichem,” he hurried inside, brought a chair from the neighbor's apartment, closed the windows, and turned on the radio in embarrassment. Only later he began to tell his fragmented story in Polish-Yiddish-Hebrew.

* * *

It seems that there is no place in the world where you can find a room like Baruch Sapir's room, with its treasures, atmosphere and meaning. It is impossible to have another room like this, because there is no one in the world who resembles its owner, Baruch Sapir. In a terrible mess, junk and neglect, were scattered in piles, inside boxes, on the tables and in every corner and crack - books, notes, utensils, Bibles and Torah scrolls, Chanukah menorahs and other accessories that served the Jews of the towns in the extensive area around Leajsk. For years, Baruch Sapir has been purchasing all of these from the farmers in the area. He leaves his house for one day, a week, a month, wanders from town to town and from city to city, searching and asking if anyone has any sacred vessels, any relic from a Jewish house, synagogue or cemetery. He pays with the best of his money and brings the object, the Torah scroll and the siddur, to his house until a piece of Jewish history was accumulated in this narrow apartment.

Baruch Sapir, who moves heavily across the room reminds us of the clumsy figure of “Arye Ba'al Guf” [short story by H.N. Bialik], says: “Here you have the ornate cane of the Rabbi of Tarnow, the Book of Psalms and Torah scrolls.“ At the same time he opens a box and in front of us are dozens of Torah scrolls, which were found at the peasants homes in the vicinity of the Jewish towns. ”At one gentile - he says - there is box full of sacred books, in Krzeszów - he says - I tried to get them to build a fence around the graves of the murdered Jews, and yesterday I discovered two Chanukah menorahs in another place.”

Baruch Sapir, excited and frightened by the meeting with us, reveals a little and hides- without special intention - twice as much. No one has imposed on him the work of gathering, these wanderings, and he does not try, even with the slightest hint, to act like one who fulfills a sacred mission. From his slightly wet eyes that wander over the treasures scattered in his room, you learn that he is worried about all the treasure he has collected. He pleads with us, begging us to take with us the cane of the Rabbi of Tarnow, bundles of Bibles, the surviving Shofar from a town in Poland or, at least, a few Torah scrolls.

* * *

We learned very little about him and his life. Only that he was born 55 years ago in Leajsk, grew and lived there in the small Jewish community, and when the war broke out he arrived in the Soviet Union and sat there in prison for 12 years. Five years ago, when he was released, he returned to his birthplace. There, he learned that he was the only Jew in this city, and in all the dozens of towns which stretch for hundreds of miles around. He is the only Jew who now travels on the roads connecting the towns on which thousands of Jews once traveled on their way to the fair and to the family for the holidays. Baruch Sapir has no idea what will be the fate of the treasure stored in his apartment. But this fact does not seem to detract from his eagerness to continue saving the remains, to continue to wander and coax the gentiles, to purchase and bring Torah scrolls and menorahs in trains, buses and on foot.

And while he recounts, with no continuous connection between matters, he combs his beard, again and again, and confesses: “I am persecuted, poor and sick, lonely here like a dog!”

* * *

All that time the townspeople gathered outside around our car, waiting curiously for the moment we leave. Baruch Sapir accompanied us outside. He straightened up, ignoring the looks of ridicule, the unconquered smiles and the bewilderment that gripped the town, as if he was protecting his friends from Eretz Yisrael who surprised him so much.

Baruch Sapir, who is worthy of a long life, may one day, as he puts it, walk away, and in his dark room, on the second floor of a dilapidated house, in a foreign town a great treasure will remain, an invaluable asset that may fall again into the hands of the local farmers. If any institution in Eretz Yisrael will undertake to transfer the collection, as soon as possible, to the realms of our archives, rest will have come to the soul of one holy Jew. And whoever gets to know Baruch Sapir will swear, because it was a great deed.

 

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