The Last Night Before The Hurban of Ozerow

The illusion of a paradise in the midst of hell lasted about three years. Early one morning, in August of 1942, a dozen trucks with uniformed soldiers drove into town. The soldiers broke into many houses on Ozerow’s main street, searching for valuables and loading clothes, leather, furnishings, and jewelry, onto trucks. What they could not take with them they destroyed. This was a replica of an old-fashioned pogrom unheard of since before the war. A fortnight later the trucks reappeared, but this time they carried away about 100 young men and women to labor and concentration camps. In September the town was terrorized by frequent late night raids, especially in places that served as bordellos for German soldiers. The raids resulted in many deaths, and presented palpable evidence that Ozerow’s grace was sheer delusion, and that the relative normalcy of life derived from the fact that the Germans lacked the manpower to enforce the extermination of the Jews throughout the General Government at once.

The impending fate of Ozerow became clear soon after Yom Kippur of 1942. On that holy day the Jews of Ostrowiec, the largest town in the region, were rounded up by a collective force of local Polish police along with Ukranian and Lithuanian auxiliaries under the leadership of German officials. Four days later the same fate befell Chmielow, a town between Ostrowiec and Ozerow. Every four days another town disappeared. The Jewish population of the region was packed into cattle wagons, in what was labeled a transfer to the East.

On Sukkot many Jews still covered their booths with tree branches, marking the joyous feast. But conversation revolved around one question: When will it be Ozerow’s turn? The answer came in the third week after the end of the festival of Simchat Torah, when Parashah Lekh Lekha is recited. On Tuesday, the Jews of Tarlow, surrounded by Polish, Jewish and Ukranian police, with their guns pointing in every direction, marched past our home on their way to the railroad station.

This was the only liquidation of a Jewish community that I myself witnessed, and it is still embedded in my mind. I watched the procession from an opening in the attic, where I could not be seen by the guarding police. What surprised me, nay what shocked me, was how easy a task the guards had. There seemed to be no fear on the faces of the marchers. They moved slowly, 7 or 8 people abreast. The gun-toting Ukranians seemed relaxed, as if they were sure no one would attempt escape. Parents hugged their babies and younger children, who were tired after the ten-mile trek from Tarlow to Ozerow; the railroad station was still miles away. It would have been easy for some of the marchers to escape. All the marchers were healthy; the elderly, the decrepit, and the lame had already been lost. Only those who were young and strong would reach the cattle wagons.

A few people might have learned sooner. But for the general population, including myself, the date of Ozerow’s impending evacuation became known on the eve of the Sabbath, after sunset, when the Sabbath candles were kindled for the last time in the town’s 300 or 400 year history. The resettlement was to take place on Sunday, October 25th. We all knew that this news was not just one more of the many false rumors that swept the town.

To an outsider, the davening at the Kabbalat Shabbat services two evenings before the expected deportation probably seemed almost normal. A score or so of men had hardly missed a single morning or evening prayer service at our house since we finished sitting shivah after the burial of my older sister, Sarah Hendil. She had been slain by a German motorcyclist on September 8, 1939, the day of the Occupation of Ozerow. The Germans used the town synagogue for a manger for the horses, and most of the Shtiblech where the various Hasidic factions davened before the far were now closed. So, ever since Rosh HaShanah of 1939 when a Sefer Torah was brought to our house, our home had served as a subterranean little shul.

During services, the front entrance was shut off with a heavy wooden bar that extended the width of the door. The worshippers always entered through the back of the house. But that Friday night the front entrance remained unlocked. As usual, my father’s chanting of the Lekha Dodi was out of tune. But his shaking forward and backward was more intense, his eyelids more tightly closed and his pinkish face redder. His reading of the Rozo de’shabbos conveyed a uniquely sad joy that I had never heard before. The Zohar’s mystical words, personifying the Sabbath as the Bride or Shechinah who was united with the Groom, evoked the search for meaning, for right, and for justice. Somehow his rhythmical reading imparted the presence of universal harmony and peace, interrupted only by a deep krechtz accompanied by a tear, heard from the kitchen where my mother was sitting reading her Tzenah Urenah.

After kiddush Father made it clear that the impending deportation was not to be mentioned at the dinner table. It was his custom to speak on the Sabbath only in Loshon Hakodesh, not in the mundane Yiddish reserved for the weekdays. “Shalom Aleichem,” peace unto you, ministering angels, became the refrain that evening, hinting perhaps that the enemies of the Jews could do nothing to him save bring him closer to his Creator. Mother had spent the last ten zlotys to purchase chicken for that Sabbath and it was worth it. The chicken and the soup tasted exceptionally good as they contained a great deal of fat. There was enough food to invite two young men who had detached themselves from their families as they were marching from Tarlow. They had not seen a house of prayer since the beginning of the war, but tonight they came to pray, hoping to be invited for dinner. They had a long story to tell—they planned on joining the partisans, rumored to frequent the forests. Father forbade them to describe their experiences at the Sabbath meal. The table is a sacred altar, and the food a korban, which may not be desecrated by profane chatter. The only fitting words are the zemiroth that open the gates of the future world.

The hub of Ozerow’s social life centered on the walks on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons in the only paved street of the town, which passed right by the door of our house. Usually, young people of all classes strolled the street, debated the issues of the day and exchanged gossip. One could distinguish the various political and religious factions by their peyes, head coverings, and the length of the women’s sleeves and skirts. There were the Agudah-nicks, the Mizrahists, Shomer Hatzairniks, Bundists and Communists. The war brought an end to all these social, religious and economic divisions. What mattered now was whether you were an insider or outsider. Members of the Judenrat and their families and friends, even the lowliest of them, were the insiders. They were excused from the exorbitant looting and taxes, which was the cost of satisfying the regional Gestapo and Wehrmacht officers, whose appetites for fine, expensive clothing and other luxuries were insatiable. Insiders were also free from the forced labor to clear the roads from snow in the winter and to repave the roads leading to the East in the summer. The insiders received warnings prior to the customary forays to snatch young men and women who would be sent to concentration camps.

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