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.
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.
Max Levinger, after liberation from the Bergen Belsen
concentration camp, at the departure of a transport to Israel
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  and they've had a pinkas since then, and this pinkas was burnt and in the year 5527  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 camps 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.
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 thats 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.
Translated by Helene Roumani
On the 1st of May, 1960, several Tarnogrod survivors living in Israel met on Mount Zion to dedicate a monument in memory of the Holy Martyrs of Tarnogrod.
With tearful eyes and grieving hearts, we greet one another when, right there and then our town Tarnogrod, Jewish Tarnogrod, reappears right in front of us, just as it was prior to the great disaster, the Holocaust. Suddenly, I'm a little boy, walking to the cemetery with my father on Tisha B'Av, clutching a little bag of garlic in my hand, as was the custom, to place on the graves of loved ones. Scenes flash in front of our faces, like in a nightmare, we are a strange assembly of acquaintances from the past.
Coming from all over the country, participants in the
Tarnogrod Memorial Dedication Ceremony on Mount Zion
|Editor's Note: Although this photograph does not have a caption, Iser Stockman also appears on page 11 and this appears to be the same person. Nuchim Krymerkopf's relative has stated that this is not a picture of him.|
Just then, a man with a camera slung over his shoulder arrives. Not everyone recognizes him. Turns out, it's Iser Stockman, a Jew with a warm heart and a generous hand, dedicated passionately to Tarnogrod and the Tarnogrod Fraternal Society. He approaches each and every one assembled with genuine brotherly concern and is most committed to the success of the memorial event in commemoration of the Holy Martyrs of Tarnogrod on Mount Zion. Coming all the way from London, he attends to every little detail and every concern, addressing each participant individually and as a group.
Here is Nuchim Krymerkopf, from America, the initiator of the memorial project, his face frozen in solemn tribute to the occasion.
Jews from Tanogrod after the Holocaust excavating mass graves
with remains of martyrs from Bilgoraj
Slowly, with heads bent low, we enter the dark chamber, illuminated only by candle light. A strange stillness accompanies the group. All deep in thought, we gather in a corner of the room where the monument is mounted on the wall, shrouded in a black veil. It is dark in the corner. We cannot see one another. We can only feel. We feel the souls of the martyrs, they are hovering above us. And we feel the cries of the children ringing in our ears.
Nuchim removes the black veil. For a moment, there is utter silence. Our throats choak with tears as the chamber is filled with the sound of heavy sighing. Rabbi Hershela's wife, the Rebbetzin Esther Teicher, accompanied by several older women, light memorial candles. Shmulik Stockman's son, Iser, recites the El Malei Rachamim [traditional Jewish memorial prayer] and addresses the group with a short speech.
Buried in a pile of ashes, our Jewish Tarnogrod is gone, devastated and forsaken. The destruction is too great to comprehend. How could we even try to imagine the Sabbath and the holidays in our Tarnogrod without a call to prayer? With not a soul in the street rushing to synagogue at sundown anymore? The truth is unbelievable, impossible to understand and too difficult to accept. Our beloved brethren have all been destroyed in the terrible catastrophe of the Holocaust.
With these thoughts we depart, leaving Mount Zion for our new homes and our newly established lives. Yes, Tarnogrod is dead and destroyed. We are the only survivors, rescued in some miraculous way from the great disaster that claimed the lives of our brethren in Poland.
We, the Jewish survivors of Tarnogrod, will never forget our devastated home, nor will we forget our holy martyrs whose lives were so dedicated to Jewish values. Our beloved fathers and grandfathers, our prominent community members and our simple folk, our beautiful people. Deeply entrenched in our hearts, we will cherish their memory forever and ever.
His passion for great ideals resounded in everything he did and will never be silenced.
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