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CHAPTER 73

 

The first night as a free man

I could not fall asleep. I was full of impressions of the last few days and my heart was overloaded with joy so that my mind could not calm down. I thought: What should I do now? Should I go back to the camp to see what happened to our friends or should I go out and meet the American army? All night long I made plans, considering projects to organize my future program. I woke up my friend, wanting to ask his advice, but he had fallen into a deep sleep, like after a wedding. He was so soundly asleep, that it was a shame for me to wake him. His face was so calm, satisfied, and a smile could be seen around the corners of his mouth. No doubt he was toying with wonderful dreams. However, as soon as it was daylight, when the light of day started to penetrate through the cracks in the shutters, I got out of bed and woke my friend. I could hardly wake him. When he opened his eyes I started to shout:

"Auf! Auf! Roll call!!! Komm mensch. We have to go to meet General Patton. He's waiting for us".

We washed quickly, put our striped clothes back on because that was our mark, but the woman would not let us go out without eating breakfast.

"You see, Ernst," I said to my friend, "a lodging has been arranged for us. We no longer have to compete for our food like the hens. Go up there and return some food to them so that they will not be angry with us."

We went out in the street. People regarded us as though we were great heroes who had won the war.

The Pole immediately called together all the slave labourers in the village, Poles, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Italians and Ukrainians. I held a speech for them: "Now we are free and will be able to return home to our families. However, unfortunately, many of us will not find our families who were burnt by the Nazis, or our homes which were destroyed by them. We shall seek out our murderers, our henchmen and torturers and will repay them for their bestiality. Hitler did not torture and destroy only us foreigners, our houses and cities. He also brought about the destruction of his own land. Millions of victims, millions of widows and orphans, that's the bottom line of the insane war which one unbalanced individual wrought upon the world. However, let us behave responsibly. Let us not rob and plunder because before anything else, we have to meet with the commanders of the American army which has come to free us."

The shkotzim (the listeners, who were the non-Jewish slave labourers in the village) all laughed from my naive talk, because each one of them was already dressed in the best clothing of their bosses and neighbours. All of them already had full pockets of stolen things which they had supposedly merely borrowed but everyone agreed that we should go and meet with the army commander. Someone brought from somewhere a high pole and someone else brought a sheet from a house, so a white flag was mounted and given to me. I knew the way to the main railway station, through the surrounding forests, so I led the whole procession with everyone following. When we came to a crossroad on the way, we met a heavy Sherman tank in which there sat a white officer, and behind him a giant negro who was chewing on something. When he saw us he opened his mouth, full of white teeth, and his pupils moved back and forth in their white sockets.

"Who are you?" the negro shouted, grasping his machine gun more firmly in his hands.

I explained, in broken English, that we are foreign slave labourers and concentration camp inmates, survivors, who come from various occupied European countries, and we want to present ourselves to the commander.

The negro sized us up from top to bottom and smiled, showing us his white teeth. He opened his rucksack and took out biscuits, chocolate and chewing gum, which he distributed amongst us. He also told us to go to Ampfing. Here, in the centre of town, there was a pile of wood burning. Around the fire stood soldiers from all divisions and ranks who warmed themselves, but a cool wind swept through the air. From all directions, jeeps and transport trucks sped by, controlled by orderlies with guide books. The market place and the side streets were blocked off by heavy tanks and armoured trucks. I felt lost, as though at a wedding where I do not know any of the celebrants. I stood amongst the soldiers, observing what was going on. On the other side stood an American soldier of a higher rank, who did not take his eyes off me. It was as though his eyes were piercing right through me. Suddenly, he disappeared. It did not take long and I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and saw the same military man who asked me: "Are you Jewish? I'm a Jewish boy."

When I heard that, it was as though an electric shock went through my body.

A Jew! A brother, who is extending a warm hand to me and kisses me. It was too much for me. I broke down. I lost my ability to speak and my eyes filled with tears. It was as though a dam had overflowed its banks and filled my heart with tears. I sobbed and lost control as though in a convulsion. I could not calm down. I fell down on the ground and threw myself around as though suffering from a serious illness. I exploded. Many times during treacherous moments of my time in the concentration camp, I felt a need to cry my heart out, to unload myself, because I felt so lonely and so desperate, but at no time then could I cry. It was as though my source of tears had dried up. However, here, suddenly, a flow of tears let loose, flooding me completely.

I imagined that there were no Jews left in Europe, that we were the last remnants of our murdered people. There had been amongst us Jews from all the European countries, from all the countries that were emptied of Jews. The greatest portion were murdered, burnt in the gas chambers and crematoriums. Only a small portion were scattered in the concentration camps as slave labourers. And here, I suddenly saw an American Jew, a true flesh and blood brother in the military uniform of an officer of the invasion forces who helped choke the Nazi snake, and he extends his hand to me like a flesh and blood brother. My head spun and I fainted. I do not know what happened to me after that, but I remember that I woke up in a bed. I saw, at my bedside, a military doctor and a nurse who was wiping the sweat from my forehead. It took two days before I recovered. During that time, I met a lot of high-ranking officers. Some of them spoke a broken Yiddish and some spoke fluent German. They asked me where I come from and if I have any family. From my family in Poland I had little hope of finding anyone. I knew that my mother had been taken away with a transport to Treblinka. I knew nothing about my brother and his family in Krakow. Only later did I find out that the whole family had hidden in a bunker in Krakow-Plashov, but someone, obviously a renegade, snitched on them and their bunker was discovered. When the Gestapo came, my brother had run away, but as soon as he saw that the Gestapo took his wife and young daughter, he joined them because he did not want to leave them alone. The beastly chief of the Krakow Gestapo, Haman, took them away and probably executed them. A younger child, a boy of three, they had given away to a Polish maid who worked in their house for more than five years and was very attached to the children. Therefore, they entrusted the child to her, giving her their best possessions and sufficient money. She was afraid that someone would snitch, so she turned the child over to the Gestapo. That is how they all perished. I knew that I had a brother in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, and relatives in United States and Canada, but I could not remember their addresses. They promised to search for my relatives and inform them about my existence.

 

CHAPTER 74

 

I become a confidant of the American army

As soon as I got up from bed, I asked the army commander to drive out to the Waldlager to see what happened to the sick. A caravan of around 30 jeeps was organized, at the head of which were the highest commanders of the North American 7th Army. If I am not mistaken, General Hodges also rode along. I rode in the leading jeep with the officers, in order to show them the way. Outside, it was springtime. The sun shone and lit up our faces. The fragrance of spring could be felt in the forest. This was one of the most fortunate mornings of my life. Here I was, a free man, who had just shed the chains of slavery, leading four of the highest commanders of the North American Liberation Forces to the camp where I had so recently struggled for my life. I take them to the infirmary of the sick who could not move from their beds, where their life was wasting away. When the North American commanders came into the infirmary and beheld the skeletal bodies whose skin was yellow and covered with sores and boils, several of them started to cry. These were war leaders, hardened from so many battles, who had so often been faced with death, and had come across so many dead people on their way, still when they saw these living dead, they broke into tears.

One of the sick, when he saw the North American commanders, fainted immediately. When he was revived, he muttered through his burnt lips: "Enough for me. This is what I was waiting for. Now I can die." It was too late to save him because his lungs were punctured and his stomach burnt.

The commanders issued an order to clean up one of the largest buildings in the town of Ampfing, and turn it into a place to care for the sick; that the whole German population should be mobilized to transfer the sick and bring beds, bedding and clothing for the sick. I was given the responsibility to oversee all this, getting twenty soldiers and officers to assist me. We cleared out the headquarter of the O.T. organization which occupied half a street and was like a closed trunk. From all sides, people started to carry beds and bedding. We also drove out with a caravan of twenty wagons and ambulances to the Waldlager, took out the skinny skeletons from the barrack and put them in the clean beds. All the German doctors of the district were also mobilized to examine the sick under the supervision of American military doctors, and treatment for them was started. All the medical supplies that were necessary were requisitioned from the pharmacists in that area. The medicine that was not available was brought by planes from France, and also directly from the U.S.A.

It was impossible to save many of the sick, but there were also quite a number whom it was impossible to save because they no longer resembled living human beings, but wrecks. They were skin and bones. From their eyes one could see that their life had been extinguished. A large group of German nurses was also mobilized to attend to the sick, to bathe and serve them. The German girls came very willingly to work because here they got good food to eat and had the opportunity of meeting and flirting with the American soldiers.

As soon as I finished doing what I could for the sick, I got another "job", to seek out and find the war criminals. I knew them all and knew where to find them. The Germans themselves also denounced them and showed where they were hiding. I was assigned an officer and two soldiers, and we drove around looking for the SS and Gestapo hangmen. I found them and handed them over to the hands of the Americans. Regrettably, most of them got off with light punishment.

My name became known throughout the German portion of the population. Each time someone else would come to me for protection. The blacksmith from Pirten and his wife, also came. He came, he said, simply to see me and greet me, but he did not go home empty-handed. I gave them provisions for the whole month, as well as clothing and American nylon stockings for the wife. "This, I am giving you, with interest, for feeding me for a week. This is for you and for the hens I might have wronged. I also will not let anyone harm you. If anything happens, let me know right away and I will protect you. And you, lady", I said to the blacksmith's wife, "don't ever faint when you have the opportunity to save someone."

 

CHAPTER 75

 

A Jewish revenge

The friends who were freed from the camps wandered around aimlessly. For the time being, they were gathered in refugee camps and looked after by the American army. The majority did not know what to do with themselves, nor where to go. The Polish Jews knew very well that their homes were destroyed and their families murdered. The majority stayed in Milldorf and Ampfing for the time being, until they got documents and made initial contact. All day long they walked around in the streets, but in the evening they had nothing to do. The O.T. quarters also had a large recreation room where they would spend the evenings drinking and dancing. We turned this into a club for the Jewish refugees who would get together here in the evenings to put on theatre performances, watch films, and have dances. The American soldiers also came here, especially Jewish soldier and officers, to enjoy themselves together with us. A similar recreation centre was established in the destroyed museum in Munich where many former concentration camp inmates gathered.

What I want to tell here, I have already mentioned briefly, but now I want to describe an act of "Jewish vengeance" which, in comparison to what the Germans did to us, seems like child's play. Once, while strolling along in one of the main streets of Ampfing, I heard someone walking behind me and coming closer. Suddenly, I heard a woman's voice calling my name. I turned around and saw the girl who was always peering at me from her office in the O.T. headquarters when I used to pump the waste from the reservoir to take it to the neighbouring fields. She looked out, probably amusing herself by the scene, but it never occurred to her to throw out a piece of bread to the slave to quiet his hunger. Now she sought me out to remind me of our acquaintance.

"You remember", she said to me, "how I used to look out to you when you worked in the yard of our headquarters? I used to sympathize so much with you and thought only of how I could help you."

"Sure you thought" I answered her, "but you didn't come to any conclusion. Your looks didn’t satisfy me hunger."

"Yes, I wanted to help you but you know that it was too dangerous, so I wanted to at least encourage you with my looks and sympathy."

"Yes", I answered sarcastically. "That's the same sympathy that one affords a man who is being hung and the noose is being tightened around his neck."

I wanted to leave, but she hung on to me. She would not let me go away, and started to cuddle up to me:

"My dear, I always sympathized with you and want your friendship in the future. I'm celebrating my birthday today and want to invite you to be one of my guests."

I understood very well what lay behind this false friendship. She had probably heard about my influence and prestige with the Americans, so she probably wanted to get something through me. At that moment, I got an idea to teach her a lesson for her hypocrisy. I thanked her for her invitation, took her address, and promised to come, if at all possible. I asked her if I could bring someone along. She agreed, and let me know that her friends, who want to meet me, would also be there.

I then returned to the headquarters, sought out three American soldiers who were known for their drunkenness and brutality. I gave them her address, let them know what was going on, and made sure that they take sufficient schnapps along.

The following day, when I met the soldiers, they were still drunk. They told me about the orgies they engaged in there. She also came running later, complaining to me why I did not come, but sent drunk soldiers who chased everyone out of the house and forced her to do things against her will. However, from her talk, I felt that she was not terribly hurt.

 

CHAPTER 76

 

I tear myself away from the bloody German soil

I wanted to get away from the bloody German soil. I could not stand the air, the atmosphere, the faces. I imagined that I had seen all these faces at the gas chambers and crematoriums, at the roundups and transports, at the hangings and executions. I felt as though all their hands were smeared with Jewish blood. Even if they themselves did not murder, they helped. They knew and encouraged the actions. I reminded myself of the old watchman of the Wehrmacht in Sosnowiec when we were herded down into the yard, when I asked him to allow me to get something with which to cover the half-naked child when the rain was pouring down, and he wanted to hit me with his gun. I also wanted to leave there because of my hope that I might find someone from my family who might still be alive.

A group of concentration camp persons were being gathered to be taken to France, so I signed up for that transport, because I had many friends amongst the French Jews. They encouraged me, convinced me and made sure that I would be included in that transport. Every few days such transports left from Munich airport, Karlsfeld, with American planes. I left with the first plane on May 23, 1945. I got a celebratory farewell from the contingent whom I left behind in Ampfing in the presence of several officers of the armed forces. I had a second farewell with friends and soldiers of the Munich museum where the refugees would gather in the evenings and enjoy themselves with dancing and singing.

Our plane had American and French flags and our destination was Paris. I was very emotional during the flight. Firstly, it was my first flight as a free man after so many years as a slave. I did not believe that this could ever happen, that I would emerge from that hell and live to fly in an American plane to the free world. Secondly, it was my first flight to Paris. I had read and heard a lot about this wonderful metropolis of love and freedom. My friends could not stop describing and talking about the fantastic life in that city. Now, I was to see it with my own eyes. One of my fondest dreams was about to be realized. This had a powerful effect on me, and I was very anxious to see this dream come true.

Our Boeing took off from Munich, and after an hour and a half, we descended in the town of Nancy. This is a town that is known abroad for its university. My friends studied there before the war. The mayor and the whole municipality came to greet us upon our arrival. The Marseillaise, and the mayor, greeted us heartily, "handing the city over to us" as his guests. One of our group replied and thanked him for the friendly reception, saying that not only were we freed, but France had also been freed from the cruel tyrant, and the whole world was freed from the chains of bondage. Practically the whole town gathered at the airport and greeted us with ovations. People threw flowers at us, and many girls broke through the ropes and kissed some of us. A festive banquet was arranged for us in the Municipal Hall. We were served with the best and finest. Volunteer women were competing to serve us and showered us with so much friendliness and love that it moved us to tears.

For me, this was a special life event. This was, after all, a reception for French citizens who had returned from the Nazi concentration camps, but I was a stranger at this joyous occasion, a Polish citizen, so what was I doing here? The girls spoke to me in French, but I did not understand them, could not answer them, so I pointed to my neck, indicating that I could not understand. They also noted tears in my eyes, so they felt sorry for me, thinking that I was ill. They were very compassionate, as to a dog that has been beaten. I felt drunk from all that I saw and felt here. This was all new to me as I had never seen anything like it in my former home. I thought to myself: Would the Poles also have given us such a reception with such friendship and love? I recalled how the Poles hunted for Jews in the forests to murder or sell to the Germans for a kilo of sugar.

The same day, there was an air-shuttel from Munich to Nancy. Every hour a transport arrived. As soon as a few hundred refugees assembled, we were paraded to the train station, loaded onto a wagon, and taken away to Paris. The train was decorated with French flags, and in all the towns through which we passed, the people greeted us with ovations and waved to us with flags. The girls threw flowers and kisses to us. I felt overjoyed. I sat amongst my camp friends and listened to the French songs which seemed to intoxicate me. I thought that for these moments alone it was worth living through all our endurances. I deeply regretted that my friend, Dr. Avraham Sukodolsky was not amongst us. He remained in Warsaw when we were sent from there. Who knows what happened to him. At that time I did not yet know that my dear friend had been killed in Warsaw during the Polish uprising. He used to tell me so many stories about Paris, and promised me that when he will be freed, he would take me to Paris to show me the legendary city.

 

CHAPTER 77

 

We arrive in Paris

We arrived in Paris, if I am not mistaken, at the Gare du Nord. It was a cloudy morning. Here we came upon a painful scene. There were tens of women and children standing, holding photos which they showed us, and asked with tears in their eyes if we had seen or met their husbands, fathers or brothers. They were so anxious to know the truth, and waited with trembling hearts for an answer. In many cases, in order to cheer the hearts of the appealers, to awaken for them a little hope, I lied, "I think I did meet him in a camp. He'll probably come home soon."

There were also emotional scenes when families met their own and recognized one another. There was no limit to their joy. I did not have any hope of meeting anyone from my family. I merely went along with the stream. We were driven away by busses to the well-known luxury hotel "Lutecia" where the Gestapo had their headquarters during the war. There we were registered, bathed and given fresh, clean underwear. Doctors also came to examine us and send the sick to hospitals and sanatoriums.

The next day, we strode out to the happy, busy streets of Paris. People looked at us as though we were from another planet. We were still wearing the striped clothes of the camp, so this immediately revealed that we had returned from "that world". The busses, metros and trains were free for us. The restaurants also did not want to take any money from us. The scenes were very painful for us when women or old folks would rise in the bus or metro to give us a seat. Once, walking along, in this way, on the Grand Boulevard of Paris, a young woman ran up to me, opened her purse that was full of bank notes, and said to me:

"Here. Take as much as you want."

I was ashamed, took only a small bank note, in order not to embarrass her, and I left. I made her happy with my gesture.

The Jewish refugees in Paris gathered in the house at PÈtain 9. Old friends met and new acquaintances were made. Here, there were refugees from all camps and from all destroyed Jewish communities in Europe. This was the sort of passing point where refugees got a place to sleep, and meals. We got the first civilian clothing there too. From here we could inform the world of our existence, those of us who had been saved from the flood. I knew that I had a brother in Rio de Janeiro and relatives in New York and Toronto, Canada, but I did not remember their addresses, so I informed them of my survival through the "Joint" and "HIAS", telling them that I am in the Jewish Centre in Paris.

My first step was to get a passport, because if I was to leave Paris, I would need proper documents. I went to the Polish Consulate where I met a good acquaintance from Sosnowiec, Karl Grauer, a former neighbour of mine, who was the secretary of the Polish embassy in Paris. He got me my first passport. He took me home to the house of his in-laws, Polishuk, where I ate my first home-cooked meal and also received a watch as a gift. I became a civilian with proper clothing, a decent pair of shoes, a passport and my own watch.

The brother-in-law of Graver, Jack Polishuk, gave me a temporary residence in his bachelorette, in one of the most elegant quarters of Paris. I now had my own quarters, though only a borrowed place. It was then that I started to write, recalling all I had lived through, putting it all down on paper. I wanted to preserve all that had been engraved in my memory so that I would not forget it. In addition, I started to write poems, stories, essays and even a play which I did not manage to complete. One of my friends with whom I got acquainted in rue PÈtain, and with whom I became a very close friend, was the writer Mordecai Strigler. He had, by then, already secured a position with the Parisian Jewish daily Undzer Vort. At an opportunity, I showed him one of my pieces of writing which he took home to read. Meanwhile, a group of friends and I received from the French government, a pass for a convalescing stay at Lourdes for twenty-one days, and later a healing spa in Department Djer, near the Spanish border in the Pyrenees, all this at the expense of the government. Lourdes is a famous picturesque town which is known for its healing water springs. This is where the famous springs which were blessed by "Sainte Bernadette" are, and there come the lame, paralyzed on their legs, who leave able to walk without their crutches which they throw away. One can see hundreds of pairs of crutches hanging there on the gates of the healing institutions. These are crutches which people left and threw away after they got healed. Here, there are also the famous underground caves where nature has sculpted wonderful formations. The town was like a magical corner with a pleasing panorama and mild air, which acted upon our health and nerves like a balm. The other town was also magnificent. There were many cure-seekers from Paris and other French cities. The staff and guests at these places were very nice to us and tried to help us in every possible way. Once, a French woman took it upon herself to teach me to speak French. Every day, during our communal walks in the picturesque area, she taught me how to name everything. We picked juicy figs from the trees and grapes from vines. Sundays, when the families gathered, they sent wine, fruit and snacks. It was a blessed recuperation after the years of suffering and slave labour.

Once, as we were sitting in the garden of our villa, the mail came, delivering a package to me. I was astonished. A package in the mail for me! I took a look at the return address and saw that it was from M. Strigler, Undzer Vort, (Notre Parole), Paris. Excitedly, I opened the package from which I took out several Jewish newspapers, and in two of them were my articles. Enclosed was a letter with the following text:

"Dear Friend Charmatz:

I looked through your material and noted that you have a great talent and aptitude to write in a way that appeals greatly to the reader. I permitted myself to publish two of your stories which evoked a very good opinion. I advise you to occupy yourself more extensively with writing because this is definitely your calling." It was signed "Motel".

This was a great surprise for me. I used to write, as an amateur, poems, stories and essays, which was a "hobby" for me, but I never occupied myself with this professionally, possibly because I had other business which absorbed all my free time, so I could not devote time to journalistic and literary ventures. However, at that moment, when I saw my articles in print, and hearing the opinion of such a competent person as Mordecai Strigler, it started to tempt and interest me. That is how I was drawn in and engaged to the printed Jewish world, to the world of journalism.

When I returned to Paris, Strigler introduced me to the editor of Undzer Vort: I. Fink, of blessed memory, who gave me the "okay" to write and become a co-worker of the newspaper. I also started to earn, albeit small sums of money, but this was sweet as sugar for me. Now, I could earn my keep and not have to depend on the generosity of the "Joint", or the local aid societies. I started to travel around in France and abroad as correspondent for the newspaper. I travelled to the concentration camps in Germany and Italy, and sent reports for the newspaper which received very good comments and I quickly became popular with the readers. This inspired me, awakened in me the desire to write more, and I started to become ambitious. I quickly found myself in a good atmosphere and made a lot of friends and acquaintances.

Dr. Mark Dvorjetski also became a co-worker for the newspaper. He was a warm and dear friend who talked no end about "his" Vilna. New friends and acquaintances started to arrive from Poland, returning from the camps and from Russia, amongst them a number of writers, artists, intellectuals, with whom we quickly felt at home, like one family. Perhaps this was the substitute for the family warmth which we lacked and for which we longed. Paris became a great centre of Jewish culture, of literary creative talents. Conferences were carried out, also evenings of discussion, theatre performances and concerts. At one of these concerts of Jewish folklore, where singers Yehudit Moretzka and Perl Shechter performed, I had a very pleasant surprise. Yehudit Moretzka sang one of my poems: "I had a mother," which she matched to music. Since I was in the audience, I had to go up on the stage and take a bow.

I grew to love Paris very much. In time, it became my second home city, perhaps because it was here that I first experienced the emotions of freedom from which I became intoxicated. Perhaps, also, it was because of the colourfulness, the magic and pulsating life of this world metropolis. After so many years of wasting away in the concentration camps and closed ghettos, it was as though the gates of paradise had opened for me and I had permission to draw from all wells of life and pleasure. True, I did not have any great aspirations. I was satisfied with very little because everything that I could achieve was a gain for me. I satiated myself with the colourfulness of this scenic city. My circle of acquaintances kept growing and getting more interesting. In time, I moved out of the quarters provided by my friend, Jack Polishuk, and rented a garret in a hotel in the vicinity of Place de la RÈpublique where it was always cozy and full of people. Mordecai Strigler also lived in the same hotel as did A. M. Lieberman and the singers Moretzka and Shechter, so we would often venture out, as a group, to the streets of Paris and walk and walk, without any particular destination in mind, and all the time in the world at our disposal. Once, Strigler and I set out from our hotel on foot, strolling on the Grand Boulevards, Champs Elysee, Place de la Concorde, through the Rivoli, as far as the Bastille. We never felt tired. Our energy kept us going. We savoured every inch of the way, the sight of all the people, the panoramas, and could not get enough of the wonderful scenes we beheld. We walked through many quarters, saw many programs, practically free, because where could we have gotten money.

 

CHAPTER 78

 

The first contacts with my family

 

My relatives probably found out that I was alive from the bulletins and lists that were issued of the survivors of the concentration camps, and that I was in Paris. I started to get letters from my brother in Rio de Janeiro, from an uncle in New York, Rabbi Elimelech Bleiberg, and from my relatives in Toronto, Canada. When I received the first letter, I started to cry. It was the first contact with my family from whom I had been torn away for so many years. A special warm feeling of next-of-kin family embraced me, and gave me the support of my own folks, close people, who showed such loyalty and family feeling. I no longer felt abandoned in God's world. There is already someone who is interested in me and is concerned about me. I read the letters over and over, as though I could not believe my eyes, such hearty, sweet words that I had not heard for years. Soon parcels of food and clothing also arrived, as well as some money. My situation completely changed. I started to buy household items, to dress better and live more like a human being. My family started to make efforts to get me out of Paris and to join them. My brother in Rio started to arrange proper documents for me to come to Brazil. My uncle in New York also applied for an affidavit to bring me to North America. I recalled that before the war, Jews tried very hard to depart for the United States, the "Golden Land", which was a dream for so many people. Due to the "quota" it was very hard to enter the United States.

On the other hand, I was drawn to Brazil where I had the only brother from all my family, so I wanted to be near him and his family. I waited to see which of these two plans would materialize first. Destiny determined that the papers from Brazil should arrive first. When my papers were ready, I received a notice from the American Consulate that my affidavit had been approved, and to come and get my immigration permit, but it was too late.

I did not want to leave Europe before finding out more about my family and visiting the city of my birth. I was almost certain that my mother had perished in Treblinka. I became aware of this when I was in Auschwitz, from a person who was together with her in Tzoizmir (Sandomierz) from where she had been sent away with a transport. Regrettably, I did not have any hope of seeing her alive now. I thought that possibly someone from my brother's family managed to survive--he or one of his children. I had found out from someone in Krakow that my brother Akiva had hidden in a bunker in Plaszow, a suburb of Krakow, together with his family, and someone betrayed them to the SS murderer, Gett Haman. He pulled them out of their hiding place and herded them away to a place from where nobody returns. This is what happened to him, his wife and young daughter. He had run away, but when he saw his wife and daughter being taken away, he voluntarily joined them, wanting to share his fate with that of his family. There is no sign of life left of them. I was informed that his youngest child, a boy of four years, was handed over to the Christian maid who was very attached to the child. He gave her half of everything he owned so that she should hide the child. This gave me no rest, so I decided that I must travel to Poland to see what happened to the child. At the same time, I would investigate what happened to my property in Sosnowiec, and my parents' property in Ostrowiec. I felt that I would never have any peace until I made the journey to Poland before leaving Europe.

 

CHAPTER 79

 

I depart for Poland

On my way to Poland, I first stopped off in Germany in a few concentration camps. The first stop was in Frankfurt on Main. Here, I met the first wave of refugees from Poland. They looked dirty, downtrodden and disarrayed from the long journey. They wandered around in the corridors and stairs of the Jewish institutions, stretched out on their bundles, hardly able to keep their eyes open. A young woman was lying with wide opened eyes. She looked at every passerby suspiciously and nervously. When I felt her piercing eyes on me, I felt uncomfortable, and asked: "Why do you look at me with such anger?" The woman stretched upward, as though ready to engage in a fight.

"Are you some sort of leader here?" she asked, tensely.

"I am nothing here," I said, with a smile, wanting to ease the tense atmosphere. I spoke quietly, in a friendly manner, so as not to upset her.

"But why are you so angry at the leaders here?" I asked inquisitively.

"I am angry," the woman muttered, and she slunk down again on her bags. "They should be sent from where we just came, then they would know how to treat exhausted people who have nowhere to rest their weary bodies. We've been en route a whole week with nowhere to wash or rest. We're lying and stinking in the dirt."

Another woman could hardly lift her head from a heap of rags. One eye was still stuck closed and the other was blinking:

"Yes, committees, offices, but nobody gives us a place to rest our heads."

"Where do you Jews come from?" I asked carefully and sensitively, the way one asks a seriously sick person about his state of health.

"From Poland." The word fell like a stone from a dry male voice.

When I started to ask what the news was from there, they started to tell me some of the horrors which sent a shudder through me. When they heard that I was on my way to Poland, several voices at once cried out in wonder:

"Where? To Poland?!" People from all directions looked at this curiosity who is going to Poland. I became the centre of attraction. People looked me over from head to toe and viewed me from all sides. Nobody said a word, but looked at me suspiciously.

I walk around in the Frankfurt streets, taking consolation from the wrecked buildings, the same wrecks that I saw in Warsaw. I remain standing in front of a large building of which all that remains is rubble. This is where the large Frankfurt State Theatre stood, the Opera. All that is left are empty, burned walls, with open holes, two broken lanterns which serve as reminders of the one time glory of the building, over the smoke-covered light of the sign "Von dem Sch–nen, dem Guten und dem Wahren" still hangs; and opposite stands the pedestal of Schiller's monument which the Nazis melted down for the war effort.

I constantly meet refugees, homeless Jews, who were looking for a home, who marched here from the shores of the Volga, the Vistula and Don. They crossed shores, seas and rivers, they were tossed about on the high waves looking for someone to let them in and grant their weary legs some rest. I met them in the concentration camps of Zalzheim, Landsberg, Feldafing -- refugees who have come from Poland and Russia, who have gone through various fiery furnaces, until they reached here at a transfer point to their new home. These are all exhausted people, the only ones left from their families, who survived because of miracles, but have not yet found a resting place for their weary bones. The vast majority want to go to Israel in order to resurrect their lives in peace, but the gates of that land are shut and they are not allowed in.

Although I heard such tragic reports about Poland, it did not scare me, because I was determined to carry out my plan. The thought had wormed itself into my mind, that I had to go to Poland to see what had happened to my family and everything I owned.

 

 CHAPTER 80

 

First steps on the Polish soil

The first station on Polish soil was Zebzidovich, a small town on the border of Czechoslovakia and Poland. All eyes were curious to see what was going on in Poland. All ears were trying to catch the sounds of the new Poland. No enthusiasm was seen on the faces of those "homecomers," though the people had been uprooted from their land for so many years. Certainly, each one of them longed to see their land once more, still, there was no excitement at seeing the soil of Poland. Everyone was waiting, inquiring, sounding out what was happening here. When people saw soldiers with guns protruding, they got scared, just as though they were being faced with an occupying force.

Jews who found themselves amongst the travelers, had mixed feelings. It was moving to come upon Polish border tax collectors, for this is the land of our birth, the air was the very air we grew up breathing, the ground that had absorbed our sweat and hard work. We feel connected to the land with thousands of threads. In this land lie the holy remains of our forefathers. On the other hand, the earth is soaked with the blood of our victims, of our holy dead. This earth is soaked with our tears and filled with the groans and cries of our tortured martyrs. Even after the destruction, those who escaped the gas chambers and the crematoriums find no rest. We stood there trembling, looking for a friendly look, a gesture, a smile or a good word, but unfortunately we did not find any of this. After the playing of the Polish hymn and the beginning of the playing of Polish marches, we transferred from one train to another, which took us to Dziedzice where we presented our documents to be repatriated. In front of the desks where questionnaires had to be filled out, comical scenes took place. The Silesia gentile repatriates stood shattered, not knowing what was being asked of them. They got flushed and did not know what to answer. At best, they would have answered: "Heil Hitler," but Hitler was dead and their new bosses were the Poles, so they had to learn to speak Polish. People looked at the scene and smiled at the spectacle.

I began to walk about on the Polish earth, as though the steps were burning me. I want to run, to seek, but what, I myself do not know. I only know that here I lost my youth, my family and everything that I owned. I once had so many relatives here, friends and acquaintances, but where will I find them today? The earth has swallowed them all. So many doors had once been open for me here, so many friendly faces once greeted me here, but now all doors are closed to me. I do not meet one friendly face. I walk around here like a stranger, an intruder.

I arrive at Katowice, wander around the streets, but do not meet even one familiar face. The stores are the same as before. The windows are displaying goods and advertisements, but the Jewish owners are no longer there. Other people, strangers, inherited Jewish property and possessions, the sweat and toil of Jewish industriousness, who were herded to the gas chambers and crematoriums. Even those who did escape the gas chambers, when they returned to their homes, were also not given what had been stolen from them. I was convinced of this upon my return to Sosnowiec.

 

CHAPTER 81

 

Sosnowiec

Here, I am back in Sosnowiec, in the city from which I was herded to the camps, and from where I left everything I owned. First, I went to look for my business, my possession. The storerooms were again filled with stock. Directors sat at desks, as did vice-presidents and a staff of employees. I introduced myself as the former owner of this business, proof of which they can find in my documents, and that I would like to get my property back. The owners looked at me as though I had come from the other world. They sent me to the vice-president who introduced me to the president. But everyone looked at me with steely eyes and sour faces. The president explained to me that it is presently government owned, therefore, I have to present myself to the city administration and to the head of government businesses. I got shoved around from one to the other until I was given to understand that the matter could only be looked into at the Trade Ministry in Warsaw. I went to Warsaw, reached the minister in charge. He received me in a friendly manner and in an even more friendly manner explained to me that the Germans had taken possession of my business, so I must make my claim to the Germans to return what they had robbed from me. They took it away from the Germans so they have a reckoning with them and they have nothing to do with me. It is true that the business is mine, but they did not take it away from me, so I cannot have any complaints against them. Clearly, a person who was tortured in the concentration camps and had some luck on his side, so that he got freed, has no right to his property, even though he was a victim of Nazism. That is how the ministry in Poland reasoned.

I also went to look for the Volksdeutsche, Polatchek, who denounced me in 1940 to the Gestapo when he tried to smuggle me across Sosnowiec in the Generalgouvernement. At that time, they tortured me for four months in the inquiry and stole a fortune from me. Now I found him a free Polish patriot. He was rehabilitated as a cleared, honest Pole. He lives and enjoys all the rights of a Polish citizen. Of course, he is not responsible for the fact that a witness of his wrongdoing showed up. He believed that all the witnesses had perished in the gas chambers and crematoriums. He himself had sent them there, so he washed the blood off his hands, put on an innocent face, baptized himself in Polish water, and he is a kosher Pole. As for me, I am told to bring proof and witnesses.

I soon saw that if I would show stubbornness I would soon be liquidated.

I also searched for another Volksdeutsche who, during the war had bought valuables from me, not God forbid, for money, but for bread. He robbed me of my money and ate the bread himself because "the Jew would go to his death anyhow," so why waste the piece of bread. This one also is now rehabilitated as a kosher Pole. He had extra good fortune, though. He provided himself with notes and witnesses, saying that he had unfortunately suffered under the Nazi regime. He had to take away the ration cards of the German privileged ones, had to enjoy all the rights of a Volksdeutscher, was forced to take a share in the robbed belongings of the "chosen race." He, like the other woman, provided himself with another god. The crumbs that he had to throw away, he secretly gave to some hungry Poles "in case he would ever need them," and that saved him. He had ready witnesses. In addition, he buttered up "where it was necessary" because he now had the means, so now he was as cleared as could be. At the same time, I am told to bring witnesses to prove that he was a Nazi. The fact that he robbed hungry Jews of their valuables, for which he never paid, is no indication. It is quite natural, and for that I have to take him to court and provide witnesses.

The whole night in Sosnowiec I could not fall asleep. This was the first night on Polish soil, the first night in Sosnowiec where I had spent more than one sleepless night and Arbeitseinsatz deportations, selections and processes. I once had so many friends and acquaintances here, so many welcoming homes where I used to enjoy myself, so many clubs and organizations where it abounded with Jews, mainly young ones. I look up at the windows and wait for a door to open. Maybe I will meet one of them. Maybe I will recognize a familiar face, but unfortunately not one of them appears. A whole world has been wiped away. I walk around, wrapped in sorrow, and my heart is heavy. Now I am on Torgova Street, on the street where I last lived and from where I went to the camp. The Judenrat was also on that street in the house of the Radomsker rebbe. On the opposite side was the headquarters of the Jewish militia. Here, terrible human tragedies played themselves out on people who did not want to die, who did not let themselves be liquidated. I look now at the dead street where only the odd person is seen running by as though afraid of the shadows that are soaring in the air. I lean against a wall, shut my eyes, and scenes of those shuddering days rise up. Once more I see the mass of people who are shoving to get to work. They fill the streets, the sidewalks. They speak loudly, cause an uproar, argue, cry in the headquarters of the Judenrat. Right there, on the third floor where Manyek Merin and his murderers sat, all the lights are lit, all the typewriters are operating, and on the other side, in the offices of the Jewish militia, there is also light. All the militia men in their white caps and polished boots are gathered. They are preparing to go on a "hunt" to grab people, victims needed to fill a transport. Another few minutes and everything will start to move, like ravens, over the Jewish streets and homes, and living and dead will be dragged from the garrets, from the cellars. I hear crying, sobbing. I want to escape because they may take me too.

I awoke and saw before me an empty street. A woman draws to my attention that I have dropped my briefcase.

In my hotel room I shut the heavy curtains so as not to see the street. I wanted to close all cracks so as not to let the nightmares enter, but it did not help. They penetrated the walls, through closed doors, windows, and plague me. I tossed all night. Again I endured those days and nights of panic and fear. Hundreds and thousands of types come running, many familiar faces, who tear my eyes open and shout into my ears. Each one carries in a sack their unlived years which they pour out on an altar. The altar swallows up all the sacrifices, but the fire does not burn out. It continues to burn, waiting for fresh sacrifices.

The following morning when I went out onto the street where there had previously lived approximately 30,000 Jews, I met none of these Jews. There were wealthy Jews in Sosnowiec, firms established many years ago, which had been handed down from generation to generation. They had convinced themselves that they were as strong as oak trees which no storm or crisis could overthrow nor uproot because they are deeply rooted in the ground. I look for these same Jews now and cannot find them. The signs are painted over with new names and shields, their stationery duplicated. Order forms are scattered in the toilets as toilet paper.

In Sosnowiec there was a wealthy man, a Hassid of Radom, a frequent visitor in the rebbe's court. He owned half a street of houses and a large warehouse with hundred of employees, a beautiful Jew, with a yellowing beard. The whole city paid attention to every word he spoke. It was no small matter if Reb Feivl said something. When he was asked why he does not go to Eretz Yisroel, why he does not buy some property there, he laughed at the fools, the naive dreamers.

"What do I need Eretz Yisroel for? I have Eretz Yisroel here. I'll wait for the Messiah." And at the same time, he cast his eyes upward to the high houses that reached skyward at his command. Now, as I walk through the Manzever Street, I meet him at the entrance of a tiny store in one of his houses. He survived. How? Pure chance. A miracle. But he is no longer the same. In place of his fine beard there remain only a few strands of yellow-grayish hair. There is no emotion in his eyes. His cheeks are sunken. The sign over his store no longer bears his name. The name of a Polish gentile woman is on the sign. Upon seeing me, he turned pale and started to blink. He took me by the hand, led me into the store, and started talking to me in Polish.

"I'm not called Feivl any more, but Pavel, and I do not understand Yiddish. As he was talking, with frightened glances, he indicated to me a picture on the wall in which there was a Eternal Light. I understood everything."

"She's the boss and I'm her silent partner," he whispered in my ear.

 

CHAPTER 82

 

I am once more in Krakow

From Sosnowiec, I left for Krakow. Returning to this city was my main purpose for returning to Poland. I hoped that I would be able to find the young son of my brother who had been handed over to a Polish maid so that she would save him. I rode to the house where my brother once lived in Podgursh, 6 Stroma. I asked where the maid who once worked for my brother was, but nobody could give me the information. They did know where the former governess of the children, Marilka, lived. She was a friend of the maid, Marisha. They led me to her residence. I knew her very well. She was a young slender woman, with blue eyes, but a stout woman, with the same face came out. I hardly recognized her. She had married in the interim, had changed husbands, and obviously had not suffered from hunger. When she saw me she made the sign of the cross. She gave me the address of Marisha with whom she meets from time to time. She knew that she had taken the child to hide, but she was not sure if the child is still with her.

My heart started to pound, as with hammers. From her words, I could see that she was trying to hide something from me. She invited me into the house, but I did not want to go in. Instead, I went straight to the address she gave me in a distant location, far out of the city. Here I am, on the street, in front of the house, in front of the door. I strengthened myself, took myself in hand, in order to control myself, because I knew that I was in for a very emotional event. I knocked at the door which opened right away, and in the doorway, she, Marisha herself, appeared in a housecoat of my sister-in-law. Upon seeing me, she drew back and turned as white as the wall. She grasped the table so that she would not fall. I sat down on a stool to calm down somewhat and, started to talk in chopped sentences:

"Marisha, I know you took the young Marek to hide. My brother and sister-in-law had great trust in you. They regarded you as a member of the household, so what happened to the child?"

The woman broke down, started to cry, and told me:

"Yes, I did take the child. You know how I loved him, like my own life. I wanted to hide him but I could not keep him confined indoors. I had to let him out in the street, so the neighbours' children started to bully him and shouted 'Zhid! Zhid!' I was afraid the Gestapo would find out and would kill me and the child. My family, the neighbours and Marilka advised me to take the child to the police. Marilka went with me because she had good acquaintances amongst the Germans with whom she used to enjoy herself. We gave the child to the police."

When I heard these last words, I started to cry dreadfully. I could not stop weeping. The woman wanted to give me water, tea, but I did not want to take anything. I got up, broken and shocked, and headed for the door. Before leaving, I said to her:

"You're an observant Catholic. You may one day be the mother of children. You should know that not in God's eyes nor in people's eyes will you ever be able to wipe away this sin which will hang over you all your life. People had trust in you. They entrusted you with their most precious possession, besides which they gave you a fortune in money and articles, yet you betrayed them and turned their child over to the hands of the murderers. The curse of a partner to the Nazi murderers will forever accompany you until you will shut your eyes for the last time."

The woman started to cry, wanted to return some things to me, but I did not want to accept anything. I left as though from a fire, and started to run like crazy. I ran aimlessly to get rid of my outrage, until I saw that it was already night. I boarded a tram, and once more rode aimlessly, until I reached the centre of the city. I had not tasted anything all day, but I felt no hunger. Nothing could go down my throat which was like a knot that was choking me. I entered a hotel in Floriganski Street. I asked for a room and lay down like a slaughtered calf, but no way could I fall asleep. I turned the light on and off. I kept imagining the scene of how the children bullied the child, shouting "Zhid! Zhid!" how he looked at the fiendish world and how he got used to it; how he was led to the police and handed over to the murderers. I shut my eyes so as not to see the terrible scenes, but they tore my eyes open again. I heard the wailing cries of the child and the mocking laughter of the murderers.

It must have been morning before I finally fell asleep.

I awakened, a shattered and broken man. I showered and went out to look for Jews.

***

Those who ever knew Krakow, can never forget it. Krakow is an old historical Polish city which has many monuments, memorials to the Polish period of glory, such as the Vavel, the residence of the Polish king, the Sukenitzes (Holy), the Mariatzka Church, the Florian Gate, and others. But the Jewish Krakow also had many historical monuments, witnesses of an age-long Jewish culture, linked by right, to the land; monuments that go back to the Middle Ages. I knew Krakow well. I lived there for some time; a Krakow of Jewish congresses, conferences and meetings, an important city for the Jews which breathed Jewishness, with Jewish traditions and Jewish legends. That is how the city remained in my memory.

Now, when I came to Krakow, I wandered around the former Jewish streets and courtyards, looking into windows from which Jewish faces once looked out. Here, in the street, the street Esthera, named after the one-time Jewish Polish Queen, Mer Street, Bozeh Tzialo, Joshe, Kuzmark-Strados, Daivar Platz, with old gates and houses which represented pieces of Jewish history and Jewish traditions on this soil. Here, one once met patriarchal Jewish figures dressed in their Hassidic garb, with shtreimlech on their heads, white socks; also enlightened Jews, modernly educated, who played a role not only in Jewish life, but also in the Polish community, in literature, in the arts and in science. I wander around like a lost soul in the Jewish streets and Jewish courtyards. I pass by where there were once Jewish houses of study and synagogues. I pass by the place where the RAMA shul once stood on Sheroka Street. The RAMA, (Reb Moishe Isereles), was a famous Gaon, an interpreter of Torah, and a philosopher. He wrote many important sforim (books), amongst them, an interpretation of Rebbe Yosef Caro's Shulchan Aruch. He was a legendary personality amongst religious Jews. This shul was built in the l5th century. Later, in the 16th century, the RAMA prayed here. Near the shul there is an old historical cemetery where his grave is. The graves of his brother-in-law, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam are also there. The inscription on the gravestones say: "Moishe, Aaron and Miriam, names that recall for us Moishe Rabbenu, Aaron HaCohen and Miriam the prophetess." In the same cemetery there is also the tomb of Rebbe Yom-Tov Lipman, (Tosefot Yom-Tov), and Rebbe Yoel Serkes, (the Ba'ach), Krakow rabbis, greatly learned in Torah. I find myself once more on Med Street (Miyarova) where the temple is still standing. There, the rebbe, Yehoshua Tohn was the head. He was a learned historian and Siyum deputy. I imagine that I hear the prayers, the pleas to God that were derailed, and never reached the Seat of Glory. They still float here in the air and look for righteousness.

I do not know how it happened, but I suddenly found myself in front of the restaurant that once belonged to Spiro. I looked inside, seeking the small blond Jew with the pencil behind his ear, and the Hassidic guests who used to get a Glatt Kosher meal here, but none of them can be found here now. Only strangers are here. The buffet, which once displayed tasty Jewish food, pickles, cakes, gefillte fish, chopped onions, now carries food to suit a different taste--fat dishes--cabbage salads and other food. I run over to Tcherinin, the restaurant which was famous amongst Jews for its specialties: Kishkah, farfel with kishke with a genuine Jewish taste. I looked for the waiters with their caps, half hassidic and half German, but I do not meet anyone. My soul got so bleak. I felt like sitting down on the ground and crying out my mournful prayers.

I shamefacedly sneak out of the Jewish street. I am ashamed to look into the Jewish courtyard. The houses appear angry; with their old gloomy faces they look at me with pity. People look at me, point at me with their fingers, as though I was a thief here, an intruder.

I run off to the Krakow "Planteris". I wander around wrapped in pain which cuts knifelike, and I cannot calm it. The plants are fresh, green and fragrant. The trees are strong, blossoming and dipped in sunlight. Birds are chirping and picking with their tiny beaks on the bark of the trees. The sky is blue, sunlight is streaming down like gold. It is spring outdoors. A beautiful Polish late spring, fragrant with fresh pine needles, smell of acacia trees and with other trees in bloom. It is in no way recognizable that anything ever happened here, that more than 30,000 Jews perished from here, amongst them tens of thousands of Jewish children whose voices rang through all this vegetation; that one of the most beautiful Jewish communities was wiped out. The natural world did not lose its order. The natural growth continues to flourish in its many colours to cover up the disgrace. Strange, that it is the "forget-me-nots," especially, which make one recollect the innocent eyes of children which were extinguished by Nazi murderers and their Polish partners. This earth swallowed up so many young children and now their eyes peer out through the colourful flowers and ask passers-by: "Why were our eyes brutally extinguished?"

***

I also visited the Jewish centre at 38 Delugah Street. Two Jewish guards, with arms in their hands, guard the entrance of the red building. It is still necessary to guard this building because danger still looms over Jews who escaped from the gas chambers and crematoriums, danger from their "dear neighbours." In the courtyard, I meet Jews from all over Poland. Mainly, they are Jews who have just returned from Russia. Here I meet old friends, acquaintances, who had been considered dead. Here, it was as though they had risen from their graves. We laugh, we cry, and tell one another stories of the valley of tears. I continue on my way and visit the kibbutz in the former students' house at 3 Pshemiska. Here also, a guard with a gun stands at the door, protecting those who saved themselves, from new lurking dangers. It seems to me that the murderers have not yet had their fill of Jewish blood. Young people gather in this kibbutz. They are determined, under all circumstances, to make aliyah to Israel, aliyah, no matter at what price. I also visit the refugee house at 10 Strados Street, at the foot of the Vavel, where there stand a few wooden booths. Here the refugees who returned from Russia are collected. Here one's heart is uplifted when one comes across complete families: fathers, mothers and children. Ones heart gets lighter when one sees children.

Krakow, which was once one of the greatest Jewish communities in the world, is torn asunder. There are no more religious Jews here, nor any free thinking Jews. All have been washed away, like after a flood. There are still some refugees wandering around, having returned from all sorts of distant places, uprooted and weakened families who are looking for a home, a place of rest, after all their wanderings. They are looking for protection, a roof over their head, here at the foot of the Vavel. But they know that this is a faint protection for them, that they will not find any peace here. This is only a hut, a succah, in the wilderness of the 20th century. They will only rest here a while in the shadow of the Vavel, catch their breath and wander on, until they will find a secure ground for themselves where they will no longer be driven and persecuted as Jews.

I continued to wander through various other cities in Poland, cities that I knew well, friendly places, where I once had many friends and acquaintances, but now the cities are all strange to me, cold and repulsive. I no longer find any of my close ones or relatives here. I meet lonely individuals who are looking for something, but cannot find what they are looking for. Gone are the days and the world that once was, which went up in fire and smoke. I come across total destruction. My world lies destroyed. I finally decide to go to Ostrowiec.

 

CHAPTER 83

 

In my city of birth, Ostrowiec

With a throbbing heart, I ride to the city of my birth, Ostrowiec, where I once spent my entire youth, the loveliest years of my life. Here, I started to envision a future life, to weave dreams with the belief and hope of a better world. This is where I was when the war broke out, to be near my mother. I knew nearly everyone in this shtetl. Here, I had a family, near and distant relatives, numbering a few hundred, besides a number of friends and acquaintances. Here, I knew every stone and tree. I was even friendly with the Polish neighbours. Although I already knew about the great destruction, and that I would not find anyone there of my close ones, I still felt nostalgia for my old home, the street, the house where my cradle once stood.

We pass by stations of very familiar cities: Kielce, Skarzysko, Wierzbnick, Kunov. Everywhere, I once had relatives and friends. I knew the communities very well. I knew the institutions and the activists. I also knew the traditional firms, the wealthy of the shtetlach, small towns, those who inherited large fortunes from their parents and were themselves prepared to leave large inheritances for their children. Now, it has all turned to dust and ashes. The sound of the locomotive lulls me to sleep. With my eyes shut, pictures spin in my mind, scenes and people from the past. Like a film unwinding, the colourful magical scenes of those years stretch before me. I see the first beginners' teacher, Reb Mordecai Lifschitz, when the assistant teacher brought me to class on the first day. I did not see any eyes nor face, but a wild beard and sidecurls. I listened to the sound of the words which the other children were repeating after the rebbe, and looked at everything around me with so much anticipation. I recall the shining eyes of my mother and father, when the assistant brought me back home in the evening. I also recalled the Hebrew Bible stories to which I would listen in cheder in the winter evenings, stories from the Book of Genesis, when my fantasy would take off playfully upon hearing the colourful Biblical legends. I also remind myself of my teachers: Pinyele--the best; Ezrl--the quiet one; Myer Pentzik and the Gemara teachers, Leibish, son of Yashe and Reb Gershon Henech. I remind myself also of my Hebrew language teachers and of my yeshiva days and the shtibl atmosphere; the patriarchal personalities, Torah authorities, all of which I guarded in my memory with great piety and respect. I also recall the Ostrowiec famous brilliant Gaon, Rebbe Maier Yechiel Halevi Holchok, of blessed memory, an ascetic and a great genius, who tortured his body and fasted for forty years. I often spent time in his study house, looked into some of his sacred books, and more than once, by chance, sat in on the religious court sessions where he and Shimele, the beadle and a third person would discuss religious cases. Such scenes replayed themselves in my mind tens of times during the night. The rebbe did not sleep. He was restless in bed in his silk caftan and fur. Probably, something was on his mind, so immediately a religious court of three Jews had to gather to pray so that the bad thoughts in his dreams and all evil influences should be dispelled. On one such occasion, I was sitting in his study house, looking into a sacred text. The beadle had gone out. Suddenly, the door of the rebbe's room opened and he appeared in the doorway, with his sharp eyes that shone out of their deep sockets, and his beard and earlocks. When he saw me he asked:

"Are you alone, young fellow?" Come into my room. You'll stay with me until Shimeleh will come."

I trembled from fear and respect. I went in, sat down on the edge of a stool and the rebbe went back to bed in his clothes and dozed off. I do not know how long I sat there, because every minute was like a year. Every stroke of the Hebrew-handed clock resounded in my mind. It seemed to me as though the rebbe was arguing with the angels which ascend and descend, coursing around his head until Shimeleh, the beadle, returned and used me for a third party in the process of getting rid of the spirits that were plaguing the rebbe through dreams.

Now, listening to the clatter of the train wheels, all the scenes came alive in my memory and stretch in front of my closed eyes. Hundreds of events which I had long ago forgotten, sprung in my mind: hundreds of people and types, who tried to remind me of incidents in my youth, drawing them out of my past. A sharp whistle of a locomotive woke me up from my state. I opened my eyes and saw that the day has gone and night had spread its dark wings over the area. I pressed my face against the cold window and looked out, seeing in the light of the lit-up windows the forests and fields through which the train was cutting its way. These were very familiar landscapes to me, which were engraved in my mind. We were getting close to Ostrowiec. I recognized the forests which recalled my young days. I would often spend summer days there on outings. My heart starts to pound, as though I was about to meet relatives and friends whom I have not seen for many years.

Finally, I find myself at the station. The conductor calls out: "Ostrowiec Comyeni!" It is the same red brick building, the same porters, but the people are different than those I used to meet here. They are all cold, strange faces. I look around, searching for my wagoner of former days, Yosl Kobaleh, who used to grab my suitcase from me as soon as he saw me arriving, but Yosl Kobaleh is nowhere to be seen, nor Maneleh, another wagoner. There is no Chiyel-Azeh. None of them are here.

The droshkies (wagons) are there, but the wagoners are others, unfamiliar ones who do not even know me. My world is no longer here. It has vanished together with the people, with the learned ones and the wagoners, together with the refined youth and hard-working Jews, the wealthy ones and the poor. So, who was I looking for here and whom should I approach? The people sitting with me in the droshky are also complete strangers. They look at me strangely, suspiciously, because they can tell from my face that something strange is transpiring in my mind. I do not want to, nor am I able to talk to anyone. My heart is pressed, full of pain, and I do not want to unfold it to anyone. I ask to be taken to a hotel where I register for a room, and sink down like dead. I do not want to open my eyes because I do not want to face reality, to see what has become of all my hopes and dreams. I fell asleep quickly, but soon woke up, covered with sweat, because nightmares were plaguing me. I dreamt that Polish neighbours are chasing me, wanting to grab me and take me to Auschwitz. I run away, wanting to hide myself in the Kinever forest, but I get tripped and fall down; tens of hands stretch out to me with axes and knives. I start to shout and wake up.

Outside, it had started to dawn. I am not able to sleep any more, lest the nightmares start over. I shower, dress and go out. The first thing I want to do is visit my father's, of blessed memory, grave. His grave was right beside the one of the Ostrowiec Rebbe, of blessed memory. It did not take me long to find the cemetery because it had "invaded" the city. Whole streets had been swept away. The walls of the cemetery had also been destroyed, so that the whole city was one large cemetery. There is no longer a border between the living and the dead because everything is dead. The cemetery morgue is also destroyed, as though heavy battles had taken place here, but no battles took place here. The Poles had taken apart the Jewish houses, looking for hidden treasures. A rumour started to circulate in the city that the Jews had hidden large fortunes inside the walls of their homes, so the houses were wrecked in search of these treasures. The Ohel (monument) of the Ostrowiec Rebbe, Reb Meir Yechiel Halevi, of blessed memory, is also destroyed. His gravestone lay on the ground broken into pieces. The gravestone of my father, of blessed memory, was whole. The vandals, though, had torn out the marble plate. Many gravestones lay broken and cows were grazing amongst the graves. Upon this sight, I sat down on the stone of my father's grave and cried bitterly. I cried my heart out. The Nazis dragged my mother off to Treblinka. Her ashes are probably scattered over uncared fields. May her memory be a blessing, but even the dead are not allowed to rest in peace. This is what our "loving" neighbours did. The gravestones were broken and the graves profaned. No doubt, the field will soon be ploughed under because of urbanization with the aim of wiping away all traces of the once great Jewish centre. What will happen then to the graves of our near and dear ones? I do not know how long I sat there at my father's grave, because the sound of voices startled me. When I looked around, frightened, I saw a few Jews near me. They recognized me, and got me up from the gravestone. They told me that approximately 80 Jews had returned to Ostrowiec from various camps and from their hiding places in the forests, but the majority left here or are preparing to leave. A short while ago, they told me, a house where a few saved Jews were living, was crashed into and three of them were killed. A note was left behind saying that, "If you will not leave here promptly, you will all be murdered." The three Jews were buried in the cemetery and monuments erected. The following day the tombstones were found smashed and the graves disgraced.

I was led into the locality where the remaining Jews gather. This was in the "Warshavsky Hotel," a small Jewish hotel on the "Teumah Hill" in front of the church. Here I met a few lonely people, sole ones remaining from large families. These were not human beings in the normal sense of the word. They were wrecks. Their eyes reflected bitterness, disappointment and despair. When they heard that I had come from Paris, they pressed close to me to question me about the situation of the refugees there and how they can emigrate. As I looked at these people, I thought more than once to myself: What was the point of struggling so hard to stay alive? It was not only Hitler who wanted to liquidate us. The whole world helped him and is still helping him to destroy Jewry completely.

 

***

The following day, I went to see how matters stood in connection with my inheritance. What I found was a brick two-story building which had belonged to my parents, and a whole courtyard area that stretched for three streets from my grandfathers property. These were wooden houses and some also of brick. In the midst of the area was a garden with fruit trees and flowers. My grandfather, Avraham Leibish Waxman, of blessed memory, was once a man of property. He once had an estate in Chmielev, near Ostrowiec, and a mill too. Since that time, he had a love of nature of his own fruit trees and fruit. Later, he bought the property in Ostrowiec, and the first thing he did was to have the garden planted. There, we used to enjoy our free time. Near the garden, my father built his house. We also had many Christian neighbours. We got along very well with them and used to play with their children. One of our neighbours was called Leshkowitz. He was a livestock slaughterer who spoke a very good Yiddish which he learnt from his Jewish neighbours. When I went to see what happened to my inheritance, I happened to chance upon this Leshkowitz on Shener Street. He immediately recognized me and greeted me with these words:

"Take a look! Take a look! You're still alive!?"

My heart received a blow and tears started to stream from my eyes. A neighbour and a so-called friend of so many years, whom my grandfather had helped a lot, and with whom we had lived as a good neighbour; someone who knew what a large family we were, which embraced around 200 people, upon seeing that one of them was alive, instead of welcoming him in a friendly manner, and inviting him into his home to honour him with a drink, regrets instead that I did, in fact, survive. He could not stand to see me. Nothing prepared me for such brutality. I merely answered him:

"Yes, you see with your own eyes that I'm still alive and will probably outlive many of my enemies."

I wiped my eyes and went to see my former home. I met another neighbour living in my mother's house, also a livestock slaughterer. He received me in his kitchen, not allowing me into the salon, but through an opening in the door I saw our green sofa and the large, massive sideboard. I also saw our drapes and our other things on the balcony. On the other side of the premises, on the balcony, near the kitchen, was our glassed-in porch. Here stood containers, probably with cabbage, and sacks of potatoes. I was dying to go into the room that served as my writing room. That was where I had once written my poems and stories, sitting during winter evenings near the stove, but he did not open the door. Not waiting until I would ask him something, he finished with me, saying that he had been given the premises by the magistrate, and that he must not deal with me at all in this regard, but that I have to direct my inquiries to the officials. He eyed me with a pair of murderous eyes, shoving me towards the door. I went out, feeling as though someone had poured a pail of cold water on me. He immediately locked the door behind me, as though he was afraid that I might return. I went away from there embittered, disappointed, and a wreck.

My grandfather's houses were also taken away, and even the garden was destroyed. Even the acacia tree, which I loved so much, and from which I would remove branches each year for our succah, was chopped down. No sign of it remained. I felt physically and mentally crushed, insulted and spat upon. It was only then that I understood our great tragedy and destruction, that it was not only the Germans, the Nazis, who destroyed and rooted us out, but also the other nations who helped them actively such as the Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Russians, Hungarians, Rumanians and others who helped them actively and participated in the murders; and also those who stood by and watched indifferently, closed their borders, and in no way helped the defenseless people in their desperate situation.

I wandered around in the city like a madman, a lost soul, and could not stop crying. I was physically and mentally broken. I looked into many Jewish homes and stores where, at one time, I met so many friends and acquaintances, precious faces and friendly looks, but I no longer meet there any of the former owners. I look into the yards, and scenes of the Jewish children who once played there flash before my eyes, the Shloimelech, and Peselechs, the Hershelech and Dvorelech, but they have disappeared. I remind myself of the long caravans and transports, the executions, the gas chambers and crematoriums where I met them when they were being led to their death. The Nazis and their partners thought up thousands of ways of death for their victims. Their houses, their residences and their stores were taken over by strangers who took possession of the whole Jewish fortune, the sweat and toil of generations. They stole it all, and now they parade around in the clothing of the Jews, Jewish underwear, Jewish jewelry, everything the Jews owned. Whenever one of the victims of those they helped murder and liquidate, but whose fate was to survive and live, reappeared, they consider him an enemy, an intruder, an evil spirit who has come to disturb their peace. They are ready to kill him, just as happened to so many victims.

The large market square, like a large container, was alive with Jewish stores. The only non-Jewish store was the pharmacy. Many of the houses are in ruin, ripped apart by the Polish neighbours who sought, in the walls, encased Jewish treasures. That market container does not exist any longer. In its place are holes, cracks and wrecks. Piles of bricks are scattered. The market place is only open twice a week, every Monday and Thursday, but they no longer have the former lustre. No longer are there Jewish buyers or sellers. Some "stalls" still remain, operated by Poles, but the peasants do not enjoy dealing with them because they do not know how to sell. They are sour-faced, unpleasant, without any desire to win over the customer, to show him that he is making a good purchase. They treat him badly, mocking him and threatening him. I look into the tavern of Yosl Hurg, where the peasants used to come to gorge themselves and get drunk and afterwards want to kiss Yosl. Now, gentile bosses took over, with ruddy stout appearances, who, themselves indulge in drinking as they serve there, and afterwards try to rob their patrons, create havoc, and start a fight. The peasants run off, cursing and spitting on the proprietor, recalling fondly their "zhid," Yosek, who was a "pazondi chlop" (decent man).

I look into the store of Chana-Rivka, Miriam Bayleh, Hindele Monesen's and the chazantteh (cantor’s wife); these were businesses that the women ran because the men were not capable, or because they were teachers, and the women were the main breadwinners. All these are no longer here, nowhere to be seen. Wherever one looks, it is as though the earth had swallowed them. The iron handrail area, where Jews always used to gather on Sunday, and in the middle of the week, is also empty. The merchants, brokers, "money changers" and the loaners on interest, the cantors and matchmakers--all are gone. The iron handrail area is empty, nobody visits there anymore. A melancholy hangs over it all, a plaintive cry can be felt. The business of Moishe-Mendl Neihoiz stands locked. The show window is knocked out and boarded up. Moishe-Mendl no longer tells jokes and no longer whispers into the ears of friends. In Dudl Boifeld's drygoods store, one now sees Polish people serving the customers. They have changed the stock of silk and velvet, brocade and other fine goods, for coloured kerchiefs, flashy fabrics. No more gentle talk is heard there. There is noise and clamour.

I walk along this way in pain and with swollen eyes which absorb the whole Jewish tragedy, and the unceasing Jewish sorrow, until I come to the place where once stood the old Jewish synagogue and the study houses, but here I find a grassy hill and brush. The grand old synagogue, built in the 16th century, no longer exists. It was one of the most original and noteworthy architectural synagogues. It was a wooden structure, with a round cupola on top of the roof. The ceiling was round, with paintings and quotations of Biblical motifs, from which there hung down heavy brass lamps, with inscriptions of the donors. Legend has it that the painter fell down and was killed. The Holy Ark, where the Torah Scrolls rested, has a work of woodcuts which portrayed birds, flowers and exotic fruits. On the western wall, also decorated with paintings and quotations from the Hebrew Bible, hung the "Seat of Elijah the Prophet." The godfather would sit on it during a traditional circumcision. Amongst the many curtains for the Holy Ark there was also one with a Polish coat-of arms, inherited from an important Polish royal family, in recognition of the Jewish help during the Polish uprising of 1863. On the occasion of important Polish national holidays, when Polish government officials would come to the synagogue, the curtain with the initials P.R, (Polska Republic), would be hung up. Near the synagogue, on the right side, was the old study house with the windows facing the Stara Kanovsky Street. There, prayers went on all day, one quorum after another, and boys would sit at the oak tables engrossed in study. On the left side, the windows faced the river and meadows. There stood the "New House of Study" where Jews in the trades, minor merchants and craftsmen, fine middle class men, prayed. Down a few stairs was the "Little House of Study." where another class used to pray: porters, butchers, bakers and wagoners, people whose workday begins very early. Thousands of Jews gathered at these places for prayers. Now, all that is left are ashes and dust. I sit down on a stone and cry at the destruction. I say prayers of mourning. I was flooded with my own tears and mumbled, which quickly became a cry, in my imagination, the cry of thousands, tens of thousands, which resounded in my mind and in my ears. I shut my eyes and imagined the scenes before Yom Kippur when the synagogue and study houses and prayer houses are filled to overflowing. In the courtyard of the synagogue, thousands of women gathered, in wigs or head-coverings, with tear-filled eyes, holding holiday prayer books in their hands. They awaited the rebbe, The Holy Man (Tzaddik), who comes from his House of Study to the Old Synagogue where he recites the Kol Nidre. A commotion can be heard as the rebbe exits the House of Study, wearing a white linen robe and a prayer shawl. Thousands of Hassidim, similarly dressed, with flowing beards and sidelocks, with radiant eyes, carry the rebbe, so weak, on their hands. The whole Zatilneh Street is full of strong young men, butchers, wagoners, porters, coachmen, horse dealers. They form a pathway through which the rebbe will soon pass, not allowing anyone to break through the line. Here they come, or better still, flutter, storm, these hundreds of Hassidim in white linen robes and prayer shawls, carrying the rebbe in their hands. His eyes are flaming, and his wispy beard sways in the wind. The procession arrives at the synagogue courtyard. Thousands of voices call out:

"Holy rebbe! Righteous holy man! Bring prosperity... Bring salvation... Pray for a good year, redemption for the Jewish people!"

The heavens tremble, the ground shakes and the whole world is moving.

When I awoke, I saw beside me a crowd of people, Poles, who were talking amongst themselves and pointing to me, as though I was crazy. One came closer and asked me:

"You got lonesome for your buznitzeh? (synagogue). The Germans burn it and cleared the place for us. We'll plant a garden here."

Yes, the Germans burnt and destroyed the Jewish synagogue together with the Torah Scrolls and the worshippers. They cleaned the place for the Poles who will plant a garden here. They will make a park from the cemetery too. Polish children will play on the ruins of a destroyed Yiddish world.

 

***

That very same day, I went away from my home city, Ostrowiec, broken-hearted and crushed physically and mentally. I slid along the walls like a thief, ashamed to look at the houses, the trees and the streets, which still remember me from those fortunate times when I used to stroll hopefully and happily, full of fantasies and dreams. I believed in the world in those days. I believed in humanity, and hoped for a better tomorrow when people and nations will live in mutual understanding, helping one another to build a more beautiful, better and more just world; when the words of the prophet that, "Swords will be turned into ploughshares and when the lion will lie down with the lamb" will come about. Unfortunately, all these hopes and dreams were torn asunder. I ran away from the city of my dreams disappointed and bitter, downtrodden and in pain, insulted and spat upon, because my eyes have seen so much of blood and tears, so much brutality and murder, so much despoilment and vileness. I left, never to return. I left for a new world, to a new continent, and to new unknown surprises in life.



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