The Last Night Before The Hurban of Ozerow

During the occupation I would frequently go to the village, carrying milk and rye to exchange for other food.

My brother Aaron, not yet Bar Mitzvah, became an apprentice to a carpenter, earning a subsistence salary, and thereby helping to ease our family’s burden. Then there was Shifrah, the jewel of the family, born three years before the war.

Neither Aaron nor Shifrah were mature enough to be expected to make a responsible decision in normal matters, and how much the more so in the affairs at hand that were beyond anyone’s experience. But if Father and Mother could not protect them, ought not I go with them, come what may?

I had another option. In 1941, I met with a number of Christians, one of whom had been studying for the priesthood. They were connected with the Polish underground run from London, whose military arm was the Armia Krajowa. They asked me to be their listening post, informing them of what was happening in Ozerow. I asked my friends two questions: First, what was the truth about this deportation? Second, was the Polish Underground willing to help organize a Jewish branch that would serve as auxiliary to the Armia Krajowa?

The answer to the first question was unequivocal. There were no settlements in the East; all Jews who were transported away from their home communities were put to death. The answer to the second query was equally obvious, if not as blunt. The Armia Krajowa was not interested in a Jewish auxiliary and would not on its own recruit Jews. Poland was occupied by the Germans, but Nazi philosophy permeated the Polish government in exile as well as the native population. What the Polish authorities in London practiced was bluntly expressed by some Christian acquaintances to me: “The Germans are terrible, but they are serving a useful purpose in liquidating our Jewish problem.”

The destruction of the Jewish communities created an opportunity to make money. For 1,000 zlotys, the Polish underground could furnish anyone with forged papers consisting of a Kenkarte, identifying an individual as an Aryan, together with his baptismal certificate. A member of the underground would steal some Kenkarte forms from an office, which could then be filled out with anyone’s photograph and signature. “Why don’t you get yourself such papers, Bentzi?” my friends asked me. There was no way that I could obtain 1,000 zlotys at the time, little as that amount of money was worth.

A kind of miracle happened. On the day after Yom Kippur my little sister Shifrah called me aside, when Father was davening and Mother was cooking potatoes for dinner. She had a secret which she had not shared with anyone. Would I betray her? I assured her that I would not, that I would not even tell Father or Mother.

She then pulled out a little bundle from under her dress. The bundle was rather light and was wrapped with an old issue of the Volkischer Beobachter, and tied with a string. The two of us took a walk behind the house where we unwrapped the little bundle. It contained 40 banknotes of 100 zlotys each. She had been playing hide and seek with her friend Liebele next door. When she was hiding under the table, she noticed that the bottom of the table was covered with wooden planks, over which there was another cover with a tablecloth on it extending the full length and breadth of the table bottom. A naturally curious child, she became intrigued with the table’s false bottom. Opening it up, she discovered neatly piled packages spread over the width and length of the table bottom. She became curious as to what these little bundles contained. The next time she was under the table she pulled out one of these bundles, whose contents had just been revealed to me. She had not told Father and Mother because she was afraid they would spank her.

I told her that I would keep her secret, that she was not to tell anyone what had happened. She could go on playing with Liebele, but under no circumstances was she to take any of these little bundles or anything else from the neighbor’s house. We shook hands; a promise is a promise. Israel Moshe Goldshtein, our neighbor to the north, came to Vienna in 1930 at the age of 14 where he was apprenticed as a tailor. He remained there until 1938 when he returned to his native Ozerow. He imported fine English cloth which he fashioned into men’s suits according to the latest styles shown in the fancy magazines. Just before the outbreak of war a heavy shipment of cloth was delivered to him, and he prospered even more during the war. The German officers as far as 100 kilometers away would come to Ozerow to have a suit made by him. They showered him with all kinds of goods, including paper money, which for them had little value. He was their favored Jew. To hide his money and at the same time have it easily accessible in case of emergency, he his it under the table and under false paneling on the walls of his house. It was from this hiding place under the table that Shifrah had stolen the little bundle.

It was too late to purchase a Kenkarte. My two Polish friends had disappeared. It was rumored that one had been arrested by the police and the other had left town without a trace. There was apparently to be no Kenkarte.

On the eve of Sukkot, Father’s first cousin, Avrumtze Liberman, of Zwolin, came to visit us. Travel by Jews was a capital offence, but he disregarded danger, engaging in the making and selling of leather. He told us that he could procure a Kenkarte for 500 zlotys, half of what my Catholic friend had asked. His contacts had prepared such identification papers for his two sons and for himself, which he showed me. I gave him 5 of the banknotes which Shifrah had taken from the neighbor, plus a photograph of myself, and within a week he delivered the Kenkarte.

No decision was taken by the family as to whether or not I should leave them until the eve of deportation. The lengthy discussions about what ought to be done always ended inconclusively. My parents and brother and sister, together with the great majority of the town’s people continued to cling to the belief that life would somehow continue. Mother was certain that if death overtook her and her husband she would be seated at his footstool in the Gan Eden. Her husband would be seated near the head of the table on account of his piety and profound Talmudic learning, and now, since she was sure he was always ready to be martyred for the sake of sanctification of God’s name, she too was prepared for the coming Messianic feast. I do not fear death, Father said, simply, and neither ought you, my son. And I was not going to abandon them without my father’s permission.

That Saturday night, my Father had a complete change of mind. It was Mother who repeated it to me: He is not to stay with us: he has to take his fate in his own hands, and God will help. To me, my father cited the Talmudic passage from Avodah Zarah 8b which related the deed of Judah son of Baba during the Hadrianic persecutions, which included the prohibition against studying the Torah. All those who dared to teach or study Judaism were slain by the Roman authorities. There was an acute danger that the chain of tradition—the Kabbalah—would be severed forever. What did Judah the son of Baba do? He took four young scholars of the tradition and brought them into the mountains, where he placed his hands on them, granting them Ordination. “Come to me, my son, I shall put my hands upon you” said my father. This he did, giving me a kiss.

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