The Last Night Before The Hurban of Ozerow

This week, the town’s deportation was the only topic of conversation on the street. Stories circulated of this or that person having paid 50,000 zlotys for a position in the German labor camp. Overnight the situation had turned upside down. The labor brigades now consisted almost entirely of the insiders, who believed that they could save themselves by assisting in the German war effort. The preferred labor brigade, for which outsiders paid heavily, wove baskets for storing bombs.

The town’s youth could not agree concerning the fate of the deportees. A persistent rumor, probably planted by the Germans, had it that someone had received a postcard from relatives in the resettled territory, and that they were doing well in their new location. Communists and philosophers argued that the German war machine needed forced labor from the conquered lands of the Ukraine to prepare the ground for the German settlers. Others insisted that the Germans, even the SS, were a cultured and civilized people and that the stories of mass murder must be lies. Someone whispered of reports that the youth of Warsaw was arming itself in preparation for a Jewish resistance. It was too late now to acquire arms in Ozerow. But why not refuse to cooperate by refusing to leave the houses? Let them shoot us there! But this was regarded as irrational chatter. In their heart of hearts everyone believed that they would live. Evil flourishes because the good refuse to believe in its reality.

The faces of some of the members of the Judenrat and the Jewish police were the most depressed. Feeling privileged, they had rarely joined in the Sabbath walks until now. But that evening of October 23rd, nearly everyone came out to say good-bye. Even the most inaccessible person, Leibele Halpern, whose forename was now Leo, greeted me: “How are you, Bentzy?” “It’s more than three years since you have asked,” I said. “Listen to me, Bentzy, for the sake of the old friendship between our families and our old close relationship, I can help you get a place in the basket factory…” “Many thanks,” I said,” “As a Jew, I will not accept favors from the Germans or their lackeys.” As soon as I left him I was surrounded by half a dozen people: “What did he say? Will the deportation be rescinded?” When I told them that he had offered me a position at the basket factory, they begged me, would you please, please beseech him to give it to me, to me!

The next morning Father commented on the first line of the weekly Parashah, which he was wont to do only on rare occasions. “The Lord said to Abram, Go thee from thy land…to the land which I will show thee.” Our forebear left his country not knowing whither he was to go. God is testing us again by making us leave our birthplace. Let us suppose that Abram would have responded to the divine command and said: “No, my Lord, I love my ancestral place, I shall not leave.” Suppose, the ram would not have been there as a substitute for Isaac. Abram would have brought the korban to fruition. Like Abram we must sanctify God’s name by going to the unknown, the promised land, as foretold to Abram. The sacrifice that began by the binding of Isaac comes to full fruition tomorrow. The sacrifice of Israel attests to God’s mercy. Tomorrow we are all marching to meet the Messiah. God has hidden his face from us by letting Satan rule the world.

Citing intricate Gematria on “Satan,” my father showed that the forthcoming events had been long foretold in scripture and mystical texts. He went on to explain that Hitler embodied Satan, who had tested the patriarch’s faith in God when Abraham was told to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. To this very day, Abraham is still looking for the place where his sons and daughters will be offered up as a sacrifice for the sanctification of God’s name.

The people did not understand what he was saying.

Father kept his absolute serenity throughout the afternoon. Nothing could be done or said to disturb in the slightest his enjoyment of the Sabbath. On other Sabbaths Mother would usually join neighbors for a chat, or, if the weather was nice, for a short walk. Now she held on to her copy of the Ze’enah Ure’enah, reciting in a sing-song her favorite tehinot. She wore her jewels, the diamond-bedecked earrings, the heavy gold chains around her neck, the bracelets and rings. She was paying homage to the Sabbath, thanking God that she had withstood the temptation of selling some of her mother’s valuables during the many months of deprivation and even hunger. Decades of abject poverty had not diminished her certainty that she was the Princess of Ozerow. More men came to the Minhah service than ever before during the three-year-old minyan. There was none of the habitual chit-chat. The worshippers’ shaking back and forth grew in intensity as the service progressed, peaking at the recitation of the Kaddish. Perhaps they were reciting the Kaddish not only for their forebears and families, but for Ozerow and hundreds of similar towns across Eastern Europe.

The flicker of the Havdalah candle marked the end of the Sabbath, the departure of the extra souls present during the seventh day, and with it the end of a civilization.

With the Havdalah over, the time of decision came. Should the family stay together and let things happen as they would, or should we split up to increase the chance of survival for some of us? The reasoning for keeping the family together seemed most persuasive. The Germans hated all Jews, but they reserved their fiercest venom for the bearded Jews, with who wore their long peyes folded behind the ears. Father hadn’t left the house even once since the Nazi occupation, because the German soldiers liked to torture pious Jews, cutting off their beards with their bayonets. At 47, he could not walk straight, dragging his leg as a consequence of having broken a bone in his thigh when falling off a ladder. Judging from what happened to the Jews of Tarlow, there was little hope that he could maintain the pace in walking the five kilometers to the railroad station. He did not utter many words, but I had the feeling that he would refuse to leave the house, come what may. Mother, two or three years his junior, adored her husband, a “lo yutzlach” in supporting her, but the biggest “talmid hokhom” not only of Ozerow but of neighboring shtetlach as well. If he decided to stay in the house, she would not budge either.

If Father and Mother stayed put in the house what were my two siblings to do? There had been four of us at the outbreak of war. A German bullet from a passing motorcycle had killed my older sister on the first day of the occupation. Even as a teenager she had helped to support the family. Father earned some income by acting as a borer, an expert in rabbinic civil Halakah in the capacity of an advocate, but most of the time he just studied and studied the sacred sefarim. Mother assisted in going every morning to the village where she bought the milk from the peasants and resold it at a slight profit to the town’s people. Hendele earned some income by giving lessons to youngsters in the reading and speaking of Polish.

In our household, hunger reigned supreme, and satiety was an infrequent guest. As a child I used to receive severe punishment for eating the bread that belonged to my siblings, and was envious of the older sister who received more generous portions than I. The only time, before and during the war, that I could have fresh rolls with butter was in my dreams.

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