Chapter 1: The Last Night Before the Hurban of Ozerow

Everyone in the town knew it—tomorrow the Hurban of Ozerow would take place. Ozerow would cease to exist. People recalled the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and that of the Second Temple by Titus, the wicked emperor of Rome. People recalled the other Hurban, which had taken place 28 years before, almost to the day. On that October day of 1914, a tzarist commander, mimicking the parched earth policy of the Russian general Kozukow in the war against Napoleon, sprayed the houses with naptha, and burnt the entire town to its foundations. “Got wet hubn rahamunes,” God will have pity on the remnants of Israel. Was not Ozerow rebuilt, replacing the rotten wooden houses with those made of white rectangular stone, with a new synagogue, sporting intricately carved pillars and a large Beth Hamidrash, which had become the envy of the surrounding shtetlach?

This time, not a single building was to be destroyed. Only the people would be taken away. There were some 5,000 souls whose ancestors had lived in this town since the 16th century. In addition, many newcomers, mostly young people who had somehow escaped from the liquidation of the Nazi ghettoes of Warsaw and Lodz, or who were exiled from Vienna and Vlatzlavek (Włocławek) by the Germans.

Frequently in my nightmares, I find myself conversing with my father and mother, my younger brother and sister, and many of the townspeople. All were to be taken to the railroad station at Yashitz and loaded into freight cars for transport to the “East.” At that time, no one in town had an inkling of the existence of Oświęcim, Majdanek, or Treblinka, or imagined the existence of extermination camps. Tomorrow nearly the entire population of the town—men, women, and children—would disappear. They would be slain or shipped to place from which, to my knowledge, no one, not a single person, escaped to tell the story of exactly what happened to them. The eyes of the people mirrored the quiet hope, the unexpressed confidence that they were leaving their ancestral home only for a brief interval.

Millenia of Jewish history had embedded into the Jews of Ozerow a faith in God’s love of Israel. Just as God had vowed never to destroy the world He had created, so He would never impart power to the tormentors of the Jews to destroy them utterly. God knows, the people of Ozerow had sinned. They had ceased to study His Torah—even before the war the hadorim were becoming empty. Only middle-aged and elderly people attended daily Mincha services regularly and lingered on to listen to the local Talmudic lecturer. But God would not forget his people. Tomorrow will be what it will be: today was Sabbath and the joy of the day of rest emanated from their faces.

The news of the impending transfer to the East came bit by bit. Around Passover of 1942, eye witnesses reported the slaughter of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, presumably as part of the resettlement of Jews to the conquered lands of the Ukraine. At first these reports hardly affected the mood of the people. Ever since late 1939, waves of Jews had come or been sent by the Germans to Ozerow and neighboring shtetlach. First came the Jews of Vlatzlavek (Wloclawek), then those of Vienna. They brought Jobian stories of the terror perpetrated by the Arian race against the lowly Semites.

The Jews of Ozerow thought that a similar fate would befall them. But nothing except some minor incidents seemed to happen. In fact, in 1940 and 1941, Ozerow seemed to witness a revival. Nay, there was even a feeling that Ozerow was somehow a privileged place on this earth.

True, nearly every day in the town square soldiers posted new ordinance promulgated by Frank the General Governor announcing restrictions on the kosher slaughtering of animals, eating meat, wearing felt coats, growing beards, leaving the town’s limits, buying or selling sugar, salt or coal, and on contact between Jews and Gentiles. Another announcement decreed that Jews had to wear armbands with stars of David at all times. The penalty for violating any of these decrees was death. But in fact few of these ordinances were enforced in Ozerow. Germans never took up permanent residence in the town. Enforcement was in the hands of the Polish police and the subsequently founded Jewish police. Even before September 1939, the Polish police of our town prospered from anti-Jewish prohibitions promulgated by the then-Polish authorities. In 1938, the Sejm (pronounced “same,” Polish legislature) prohibited kosher shehitah in Poland, under the pretext of humanitarian concern for the animals. This prohibition effectively raised the cost of kosher meat, as bribe money filled the pockets of the gentile police.

The town’s stores remained shut and no new shipments of textiles or leather were coming in. When the war started in September of 1939, people who had hidden shoes, clothes, and other goods in their cellars started to barter them for potatoes and grain. Tailors and shoemakers found peasants who paid well for their skills in foodstuffs. Even some Gestapo and army officers sought out skilled craftsmen, paying with massive amounts of Reichsmarks or diamonds taken from other Jewish stores.

Culturally, Ozerow prospered from the large number of highly educated men—doctors, engineers, poets, and intellectuals—who settled in the town, which had become a haven from German persecution. With nothing else to do, the young people spent endless hours debating politics, culture, and philosophy. Marxism was a favorite topic and books on dialectical materialism enjoyed wide private and public readings. Some of the newcomers brought jewelry and foreign currency, especially dollars and pounds. With the schools closed, these educated outsiders tutored some of the children of the better-to-do families. Ozerow was receiving the reputation of a paradise in the midst of hell.

The townspeople gave different assessments to account for Ozerow’s privileged position. Some attributed it to the town’s hallowed cemetery, in which were buried Hassidic luminaries, known in Poland and Galicia for exorcising dibbukim, lost ghosts of sinners which find redemption by clinging to innocent maidens. The members of the Judenrat, who had grown wealthy by providing goods, services and money to the Germans, claimed the credit. Another popular explanation ascribed Ozerow’s favored position to the virtue of its citizens. The big cities such as Warsaw and Lodz had become like Sodom, full of vice of all kinds, including prostitution and thievery. But, in spite of the rebelliousness of its youth, the traditional character of Ozerow remained essentially unchanged. Only one barber shop dared to do business on the Sabbath. On Friday afternoons, the town’s mikveh filled with male bathers, and in the evening with women. Although reduced in numbers, khasenes and brisen retained their customary joy. The extremely poor were provided with all the necessities, including challah for the Sabbath and matzah for Passover. As long as Ozerow retained its Jewishness, Satan would not have the power to overwhelm it.

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