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[Page 557]

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Upon the Ruins

 

[Page 558]

On the ruins I will walk

K. Shimonovich

Translated by Sara Mages

On the ruins I will walk, on the deserts of the world,
and all the martyrs of my town will chase me.
They will uproot every paving stone,
and tears will flow down every stream and river.

On the night the holiday was sanctified on foreign, gentile, land,
bells are ringing with joy and domes of mosques are cheering.
Echoes from afar will answer, from wide snowy fields,
the lights are lit in their direction, greedy eyes are flocking.

They are in quiet houses. The green tree sparkles…
Cheerful windows are laughing, laughing in the shadow of the light,
only the Jews' windows are sealed, only the shutters of their houses are closed
and a strange silence is seen in them as from the eyes of the blind.

Bells are ringing and answering and crosses dancing on domed roofs,
and a wind carries into space the ringing of enthusiastic joy - - -
Only closed shutters are shaking, shutters of sealed windows
and an anxious Jewish mother presses her child to her heart.

On the ruins I will stand and cut, cut.
Until a spring in the desert will herald redemption,
until darkness will turn into a powerful light,
until my town will ascends to the heaven of heavens.

[Page 559]

On the Ruins of Our Shtetl

by Moyshe Burshteyn

It was in 1944. I was in Lukov when the news came to me that Wolomin had been freed by the Russians. Immediately, without thinking about the difficulties, I decided to go there.

With the first steps that I succeeded in taking, I arrived at Rembertov. From there I managed to get an illegal ride on a transport train that was going to Zielanke, where I arrived at midnight.

I felt anxiety about knowing more about Wolomin. In the Zielanke train station I tried to speak with the Poles, trying to learn something about my shtetl. I knew that Wolomin had been taken by the Russian army two days earlier, but no trains were going in that direction because the tracks had been destroyed.

At that time it was forbidden to appear in the street until five in the morning, so I decided to stay at the station, which was filling up with people from all over the country. Among them were some who were involved in business and some who sought family members or who wanted to be further from the front lines. Unhappily, I sought among the thick crowd a Jewish face, but sadly there was not a single Jew among them. Finally dawn arrived, 5 a.m. The sky was full of heavy clouds. A fine rain fell, and my spirit was restless as I went on my way, trying to follow the rail lines.

The way was muddy, and I was thoroughly soaked from the rain. This encouraged me to go even faster. I was under the illusion that I would meet someone I knew. That gave me the courage to continue on this difficult journey.

In this way I continued on to Kabilka. The rain stopped and the sun came out. My steps became lighter. I was already only a half kilometer from Wolomin when I saw someone approaching.

When he got close, I asked him for a match to light a cigarette, and then I asked about Wolomin, if any Jews were still there…

I noticed that the man began to tremble, shaking his head no. He did not want to speak further with me. He hurried away, leaving me standing there.

His demeanor sobered me up and removed all the illusions that had earlier given me strength to make the long journey on foot.

*

Broken and discouraged, I could hardly manage the last hundred meters to Wolomin. For the whole trip I had tried to believe that perhaps someone had survived. I said to myself, “Moyshe, you have been through so much. Don't fail now. Be strong. Maybe someone close to you survived, but the survivors are afraid to show themselves openly…”

I knew that Wolomin was twice taken, by the Germans and the Russians, and then back again, and I had forced myself to believe that perhaps in these circumstances the Jews had remained in their hiding places, afraid to show themselves in the streets.

Many conflicting thoughts raced through my mind, good and bad. There would be a promising thought, raising my spirits and giving hope, but soon there would come a darker thought, filling my heart with despair and disappointment, taking my last bit of strength. My feet were giving up, could go no further because of their weakness, so I had to restrengthen myself, remake myself and go on with hope that perhaps…

In this way I made it to the Wolomin train station, in the shtetl, walking the long streets until I arrived at Leshne Street, where there used to be the center of Jewish life, the beis–hamedrash, the Torah Foundation. It used to be alive with Jewish tumult, with Jewish life.

I stood in an empty place and looked for the beis–hamedrash that had always stood there. But the spot was bare and empty. An abandoned field, full of garbage. On the side was a deserted building of old wood and tin, a primitive bathhouse for the Germans, for Hitler's murderers.

On the other side, where the Torah Foundation used to be, was a ruin that looked like a leftover from a thousand years ago. It reeked of horror, desolation, and ruin.

*

I stood there for a long time, rooted to the spot as if turned to stone, looking for something that remained, a trace of the former Jewish life, but everything was empty and ruined, like a cemetery, and in the wasteland hung the memories [?] of those who were never mourned and who were so cruelly killed.

In my ears I heard the sounds of the melodies sung by those who were praying and studying, of the fine, beautiful Jews who lived there, who studied, who prayed, warm, quiet, and joyful, blessed with the strength of their belief that the evil would pass away and the evil ones would disappear. They had the greatest trust in a merciful and forgiving God…

I saw how in the long winter nights there would be discussions among the fine young men over a verse, over a difficult passage in the Gemara.

Ah, beautiful, strong Jews from our shtetl, who with their fine qualities and customs were masters of a higher morality and therefore were etched in the memories of the surviving Wolomin Jews and would never be forgotten.

Standing in that empty field, grown over with wild grass and sharp thorns, with discarded papers and horse droppings, everything, that whole former life, seemed like a long–vanished story.

The soul of the shtetl was gone. It had been extinguished, as if it had been killed. It appeared as if it had been thrown back hundreds of years, before the Jews had arrived and it was only a small peasant settlement.

Now I remember the sticky filth from the horrible crimes that took place there and will never be forgotten.

Soon I felt my whole body bathed in a cold sweat and my teeth chattering. I felt even more strongly the destruction that had come upon us.

Once again I recall how it used to look. Not far away had dwelt Fishele the teacher, and nearby–Aryeh the grave digger, Tzolke the cereal maker, Froike the baron, Sholem yud–vavnik in his business where his horse would pull the wagon. A little further on lived the shochet Dovid Edelson and scores of other fine, good Jews, blessed with good deeds, fine and sincere, with good smiles on their faces, with the quiet glow of scholars.

I could not hold back the tears that ran from my eyes, and I let out a bitter cry. My lips murmured this plea to heaven:

“Riboyno shel oylam, why did this have to happen? Did your people sin so badly that such horrible woes should afflict them?”

*

Suddenly I felt as if something moved on my shoulder. I was so deeply sunk in my thoughts and my pleas to heaven that it seemed to me at first like a touch from another world. When I turned around, I saw before me an old woman, apparently somewhat over sixty. She looked at me sympathetically and asked if she could help me.

In despair I answered her: “It's too late.”

It was hard for me to speak. The words stuck in my throat.

She understood me, looked silently at me, as if she could read my great sorrows on my face, and I saw tears in her eyes. She crossed herself and walked quietly away.

Again I stood alone in that deserted place. In my mind the question continued to echo: “How could this have been possible?”

How could it have been possible to exterminate this beautiful Jewish settlement?

*

In despair I allowed myself to head for the marketplace, and again I relived my memories of how the preoccupied and weary Jews and Jewesses used to come and trade with the peasants; how the Jewish women would blow between the feathers of the fowl to see how fat the bird was. Before my eyes I seemed to see the street stalls with various goods, and Jews everywhere, Jewish shops and stores around the marketplace. No hint remained of all this.

Everything had disappeared.

I encountered not a single Jew.

Coming to Kashtchelne Street, I stood before house number 19, where we had lived.

I forced myself to go up the stairs to the door of our home, where we had lived for so long.

I stood there for several minutes gathering my courage until I decided to knock on the door. At first I knocked weakly, as though in shame, as one does at the door of a stranger when one does not know who might open the door.

My knocking gained strength, and finally the door opened and a fifty–year–old man appeared. His wife stood behind him. They asked who I was looking for.

I stood there as though paralyzed, absorbed in another world, and I could not answer, could not find the words to explain why I knocked on a stranger's door.

I wanted to tell them, to answer them, to let them know of my experiences, my troubles. But my answer stuck in my throat. I could not speak.

It seems, however, that my mournful expression, my despair, my eyes, red from lack of sleep, answered for me.

After a few minutes the wife asked whom I sought, and when I did not answer, standing and peering at them with a despairing look, she spoke again: “Excuse me, sir, but perhaps you have the wrong address?”

At that moment, I came to myself and realized that there was nothing there for me. I stammered, “Perhaps…Excuse me…”

I quickly ran away from the stoop, trying to get away from my house, from the past, from the horrible misfortune.

*

Across from our house had been a butcher shop. It was open. I went into the shop, and there stood the Christian Mrs. Janitzka, whom I had known for a long time. I greeted her, and she recognized me, called me by name, and excused herself, ashamed, saying that she had given money to my parents when they were in the ghetto.

I stood there as if on hot coals, as if the earth were burning under my feet. I thanked her for her goodness…I hurried out and went into another shop, inquiring whether they knew about any Jews who had been in hiding.

They immediately looked at the house across the street. Back in his former home was living Fried. He had had a shop for cobbler's supplies. I went across to them immediately and they invited me in. I learned that Yakov Rubinshteyn and his family had hidden with them.

I went to them immediately and found the Rubinshteyns in their home. They all shared our experiences, the difficulties we had encountered, and we mourned those who had been killed.

With each new day we learned more about the awful disaster. Gradually a few more hidden Jews appeared, women who had survived thanks to their Aryan papers and appearances; others who had survived in other ways, by other methods, who had been miraculously rescued.

Sadly, there were not many such cases.

All was forlorn. The same houses stood there, orphaned, like nests from which the birds had flown away and black crows had taken their place. But what remained in them were the cries that were left behind by their residents who had left on their final journey.

Alone I wandered through Wolomin's streets and I felt that every stone dripped with blood. I heard the screams that came from every wall. Instinctively I stood by the familiar, well–known doors, wanting to knock…Their handles slipped in my fingers.

It quickly became clear to me that there was no one there for me to seek, nothing more for me to do.

There had been a Jewish Wolomin, but it existed no longer.


[Pages 566-568]

After the Catastrophe

by Shloyme Blumboym

Broken from bitter experiences, with eyes drowned in tears, I cannot cease mourning for my murdered children and for all the good and sincere Jews of Wolomin.

I feel tied by a thousand threads to the shtetl where I established my tannery, where scores of Jewish families earned a living. We led an intense and dynamic life, but now it all seems like a nightmare. All of our beautiful hopes were nothing more than an illusion that lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Who could have foreseen that there would come a time when people could without punishment rob and kill innocent people simply because they were Jews.

As soon as the Germans entered Wolomin, they stole everything from the factories: leather, material, chemicals, and even the wood for the fires. To move out all this stuff, they seized twenty–five Jews, whom they urged on with terrible beatings.

The Germans rushed, wanting to have the whole job done in a single day, taking all the materials out of their spots, out of their barrels, and taking them all to a special train to Germany.

My younger brother Littman was staying with a Christian family outside of Wolomin. Although he had paid them well, they robbed him, taking all his money and jewelry and handing him over, along with his entire family, to the Germans.

When the Germans came to arrest him, they pretended that they were prepared to give him his life in return for gold and gems. My brother believed them and led them to a hiding place in the factory, dug up all his possessions, and gave them to them.

The Germans took everything and then shot my brother and his family on the spot.

My brother Littman was then forty years old. His wife was thirty–eight, and their son was ten.

After the war, I found their remains and gave them a Jewish burial in the Jewish cemetery in Wolomin.

In those evil days I brought my father from Warsaw so that he could be with us in the Wolomin ghetto. My father was quite ill and needed an operation, but there was no possibility of having one in the ghetto. It broke my heart to see how he suffered such terrible pains and no one could help him.

After many torments my father died in the ghetto and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Wolomin. Near the grave of my father, R. Yosef Blimboym, lie my brother Littman and his wife and son.

Foreseeing the end, I thought about how I could get away from the ghetto. I succeeded in escaping to Bialystok. Again a ghetto with all its hardships and decrees. From there I reached the woods and then went back to Warsaw, where I lived for a time with Aryan documents as Jan Saviski.

When the rebellion broke out, I fell into the hands of the Germans, but because of my Aryan documents, they sent me to Germany, where I stayed until the end of the war, doing a variety of jobs.

After the war, I took my earliest opportunity to get back to Wolomin. In my heart there was a slight spark of hope that I would meet someone I knew, but the actuality of what I found in post–war Wolomin extinguished that spark.

With a broken heart I wandered through Wolomin's streets, leaned against the walls of the houses that once belonged to Jews.

I asked everyone I met about my children, my daughter Feyge and my son Ephraim, but the answer was bitter and dark: my children were murdered along with all of Wolomin's martyrs, and no one knows where they are buried.

Everything that was destroyed, all who were so brutally killed–they live in our hearts and memories. May the pages of Yizkor Book serve in the place of stone or marble monuments–Do Not Forget!


[Pages 559-571]

Wolomin–Today
(The Traces of a Forgotten Jewish Life)

by A. Bercovitch

With a heavy heart I wander around the shtetl where once pulsated a warm Jewish life. Taken away is the spirit of the shtetl. It was blotted out, withered away. Today it is hard to fathom that a whole community life pulsated there. But it appears to me that the surviving death horrors left deep traces in the shtetl. None of the Poles whom I meet fail to note that I am a Jew, and it is hard to have a conversation with them about matters of Jewish interest.

It is already many years since they have seen a Jew, and so the Pole Nazhitzki tells me about his illnesses whose origins the doctors cannot explain, and people think that they are God's retribution for their sins against the Jews. He calls out names: Vishenik, Rolenko, Smolnik, who stole much Jewish property. All of them have children who were paralyzed, lingered for years, and then died.

The tradition of robbery, which today is done in form of hoaxes, forgeries, and other kinds of abuses, still continues in the shtetl.

A short time ago there was a trial. The militia had arrested someone named Jan Sklodkovski, who had fifteen metal seals with which he worked a variety of scams. He had stolen the seals from different offices, from the presidium in the Voyovodish National Council in Raisha [?], then in Crakow. In Wolomin he stole from the magistrate's office, and there he was caught red–handed and confessed that he had worked with accomplices. Wolomin goyim.

At the trial, one of the witnesses, a woman named Borokovska, recalled that Sklodkovski had stolen a great deal of Jewish property at the time of the ghetto. But the judge finally laid no new charges against him on this account.

In response, Sklodkovski refused to accept these accusations and began to make accusations against the witnesses, among whom were some who occupied high offices in the magistrate's office. One of them had built for himself a luxurious villa in the shtetl, and Sklodovski showed that he had exchanged gold and jewelry that he had stolen from the Jews…

*

Later on I went to one of the houses on Leshne Street, knocked on the best door, asked for someone with a fictional name, and began a conversation.

Although before the war I had never been in the city, I was still certain that Jews had lived there earlier. I felt a need to sit in such a house and to absorb the lament of the walls and to see how the Pole, the current occupant, who had built his house on such tragic, horribly unfortunate murdered victims, would react.

When I suggested this, the Poles did not stir a hair, felt no embarrassment. They responded that before them, five Polish families had lived there, but one after the other they had moved away because the house brought them bad luck. One had mutilated his hand on a piece of glass that was a remnant of the Jews' dishes, and the hand had to be amputated. For a second, his ox had gone mad and stomped a five–year–old child to death; for a third, his daughter went out in the middle of the night and in the darkness an unknown figure raised up a white hand and from fear she became a mute…

The Poles showed me the horseshoes they had put on the thresholds and frames of the doors, but they did not help. They lived in terror that each day something bad might happen. In the shtetl there were vengeful spirits. The souls of the robbed and murdered Jews wandered around seeking vengeance.

The houses were run down. I felt that people lived there out of necessity, because nowhere else could they find shelter, but they sought to escape as quickly as possible, trying to escape the horror that pursued them.

*

Walking around the shtetl, I was tormented by disgust for the whole area, and for myself. I had the feeling that I was walking around among the related filth of crimes and dejection that could not be redeemed for any price, not even for the horror and fear that afflicted the robbers and murderers.

The Skrabatsch family, the owners of the mill, were well known for their excellent qualities both among the Jews of the shtetl and among the peasants in the surrounding villages. Like many other Jewish families in Wolomin, they excelled in their work. The property of the destroyed Jews was stolen, but their souls float over the ruins of Jewish life in the shtetl, where the robbers, who helped the Nazi murderers in their bloody work, walk around freely and openly. But from time to time there resounds over the shtetl an echo of those who were so terribly destroyed, as if from a world that has disappeared.


[Pages 572-580]

My Little Shtetl of Wolomin

by Yosef Eizenberg

It is already thirty years since the Nazi murder machine began the gruesome extermination of hundreds of Jewish towns and shtetls in Poland. Each town and shtetl, each Jewish dwelling, had its own particular merit. We, too, the remnant of the Wolomin Jewish community, are proud of our past, with its warm, multi–colored Jewish life that we led in our little shtetl.

Each of us must keep in his heart, as a special obligation, an accounting of our martyrs whose lives were cut short, for we are responsible for their memory. The beauty and moral grandeur of our parents and relatives must always enlighten us and the coming generations. Day and night we must repeat the vow: Never forget! We will never forget their holy lives nor their awful deaths as martyrs for God and for their people.

Wolomin remains empty and devoid of its Jewish inhabitants, their bones and ashes scattered over the fields and woods. We cannot visit their graves, because they received no Jewish burial.

Even the Jewish cemetery, where those lie who died natural deaths, is desecrated and defaced. On their sacred resting places now tread the pigs of the Poles who took over Jewish property and goods.

In my memory will always remain the images of Jewish life in Wolomin, community and cultural affairs, the religious and simple Jews and the enthusiastic Chasidim.

All this I left behind forty–five years ago.

In my ears I can hear the singing of the young people in the Peretz Library, the poems of great yearning for Zion by Yehuda Halevi and Ibn Gabirol, of Chaim Nahman Bialik and Tchernikovsky, the Yiddish poems of Peretz and Avraham Reizin, of Dovid Einhorn and other folk poems.

Beautiful and energetic sounded the various melodies of Wolomin's Chasidic prayer houses, from the Ger and Kotzk Chasidim, the Vurk and Modzhitz Chasidim. Sincerely and with haunting longing the Yeshiva students chanted their Gemara melodies and fervently conducted their arguments over difficult passages, over the arguments between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai.

Jewish Wolomin was engulfed by music on Friday evenings, when you could hear Shabbos evening songs from every dwelling.

Full of joy and the desire for life were the High Holidays in the shtetl, especially Simchas Torah, when the Jews would go hand–in–hand, shoulder–to–shoulder, and lose themselves in a fiery dance, singing with great spirit, throwing off the everyday, forgetting all their worries and troubles, giving themselves wholly over to the joy of the holiday. Who has ever known rejoicing like that?

It's all gone now, all gruesomely cut off.

 

The Destruction of Wolomin

Many painful years have passed since the Nazi murder machine began its brutal extermination, whose chief victims were the Jews.

Hundreds of Jewish communities, towns and shtetls in Poland, were destroyed in the bloody slaughter carried out by Hitler's bands, may their names be wiped out. So we who came from Wolomin must keep alive in our imaginations that Jewish life that was so cruelly destroyed. Our old home has been emptied of its Jewish residents–our dearly beloved, who never received even a Jewish burial. Their bones are scattered and spread out across foreign fields and woods. The murderers could not even allow the dead to have rest, as they demolished their graves and monuments. Thus the peasants allow their animals to walk freely over the sacred ground of the cemeteries.

When I left my home town of Wolomin on August 12, 1924, there was a Jewish life, with Chasidic tunes from Ger, Rodzimin, Amshinov, Kotzk, vurke and others, and Jewish houses crowded the streets. There was an exchange of songs about war and freedom from a large portion of the local youth, along with a symphony of music and Torah from the yeshiva students and of Yiddish folksongs and more recent songs in Yiddish and Hebrew.

Who can forget the images of our Shabboses and holidays, filled with song and lively dancing?

For a hundred years the Wolomin Jews built their shtetl, constructed their houses and institutions. How was all that so quickly destroyed?

We must recount the story so that the memory of the Jewish community of Wolomin will stand from generation to generation.


[Pages 581-582]

Volomin Remembered

Riva Kopyto Pfeffer

Typed up by Genia Hollander

This is the year 1970. Twenty-eight years have passed since the Nazis put the Jews of Volomin to death. When I was asked to write my impressions of the town of my birth, I, at first, refused for I knew how painful it would be to recall the people and the experiences that left an indelible impression on my memory.

I see before me the faces of my dear parents, my beloved grandfather, my sister Chava, my brother Shlomo and so many friends and neighbours. I recall my school friends – so young then – so alive and now dead.

How fine were the people of Volomin? I remember many poor families, so proud that they endured their poverty without complaining. Later, in the ghetto, they were the ones who suffered most because they had nothing of value to sell in order to buy the food that was so exorbitantly priced. They were the ones a person saw in the streets, swollen from hunger. Their eyes betrayed their desperation. They were the first to die.

*

The typhoid epidemic of 1941 killed hundreds in Volomin. Among those who died were many devout people and many prominent people. It was as if God had chosen them to die this way to spare them from more suffering and more hunger, and to spare them the horror of death in the gas chambers.

As time went on, food became more and more difficult to get. Mothers risked death by going outside the Ghetto to try to get food for their families. I remember seeing one woman, pregnant and the mother of several children, shot before my eyes. Incidents like this occurred daily throughout the time we were in the Ghetto.

Because there were so many orphans, an orphanage was hastily established. People contributed whatever they could but there too was hunger, cold and suffering. Each day it seemed that we had reached the limits of our endurance. Life was an agony from which the only escape would finally be death.

I remember the trains. Day and night, they rolled from Warsaw on the way to Treblinka. I could see faces pressed against the small openings of the cattle cars. I could hear the cries of women and children. Often, notes were found thrown to the ground by someone in the transport warning: “Save yourselves”: “Do something; we are on our way to destruction”. But of course, there was nothing we could do. It was too late. We were exhausted, starved, diseased, beaten.

Often the guards watching the trains were not even Germans. They were Hungarians, Lithuanians or Ukrainians. The Nazis found willing help in their horrible endeavours.

*

In the years since the Holocaust, I have often thought about my own survival. How is it possible that I am alive? How is it possible that all the others are dead? Thoughts of this kind bring back the pain, the deep sorrow, and the question “Why?” Of course, there is no answer. But one thing is certain: the world will never understand what it is like to have lived through the Holocaust and to have to live with the memory of those times.

And forever, we will mourn our parents, our brothers and sisters. And of all the six million.

 

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