The Last Night Before The Hurban of Ozerow

It was time to take leave of my family. I was to catch the train that stopped at Yashitz (Jasice) at 10:48 p.m. and I had to allow three quarters of an hour for the walk to the railroad station. In 1914 when my parents were expelled from their homes and forced to cross the Vistula, they returned to find their homes reduced to rubble and ashes. Building on this experience, my parents had decided to protect our few valuables from the elements. We all went down to the cellar, which extended the entire width of the house, and the five of us witnessed the disposition of the few remains of the past wealth of our forebears. These consisted of my mother’s mother’s jeweled earrings, pearl necklaces and bracelets. There were also golden goblets, charoses and maror plates, which used to adorn the table during the Passover Seder. Shivering in the cold, Aaron and I quickly dug a hole in the ground of the cellar about two feet deep, deposited the items therein and covered it with earth, placing coal and potatoes on top of the soil. At that moment were all felt that the separation was only temporary and that whatever were to happen, all five of us would soon be reunited again.

Mother, who handled the money in our family, then unwrapped her little bundle of single zlotys which she had put together for a time of crisis, and handed it over to me without counting it. Take it, Bentzy, you may need it. I counted it and found it to be 68 zlotys, just enough to buy a single loaf of bread. I returned the paper money to her, telling them that they could make better use of it. I said that a miracle had happened and I had found 5,000 zlotys, out of which I had paid Avrumtze the 500 zlotys for the Kenkarte and an additional 2,000 zlotys for a pair of boots, which should have fetched 5,000 in the market place, and that I felt rich with the remaining 2,500 zlotys. I gave five 100 zloty notes to Aaron and five to Shifra, keeping the remaining 1,500 zlotys for myself, enough perhaps to buy a ticket and to live for a day or two and a night’s lodging. I was grateful that Father did not ask where I got this money from, and Shifrah never betrayed the secret. Had he known its true source, he would not have rested until every groshen was given back to its legal owner.

I changed into the new boots, marking the beginning of my parading as a Goy.

By now it was after nine o’clock, almost time to part. Father was helping Mother make up a small bundle for my journey while watching me dress as a Goy. None of us, however, had the foggiest notion how Gentiles dressed. Sure, we could distinguish a Hasid by his shtreiml, long kaftan, and sleeved high shoes; a Misnagged, by his Goyish jacket and pants. And you could always distinguish a Jew from a Gentile by the way they wore their hats. But how exactly the Goyim wore their clothes we did not know.

Fortunately, our next door neighbor, to the south, Meylech, was a hat maker. I knocked at his door. “Meylech, could you sell me a goyyisher hat,” I said. “Here,” he said, “are all of my hats, take as many as you want.” His wife, Ruchele, asked, “What kind of Goy will you be, a puritz (gentry) or poyer (peasant)? Why should a Jewish boy like you act as if he were a Goy anyway?” I asked her whether she had heard of the deportation pending within a couple of hours. She said she had, but that she didn’t believe this could occur in Ozerow, a town guarded by the heilige Tzadikim. She then picked out what was the most peasant-like hat, made of thick, checkered cloth with a long brim, and gave it to me. I gave her a ten zloty note. “When you come back, you’ll be my Gitele’s khosen.” “Yes,” I said, thoughtlessly.

My cap resembled the kind worn by the peasants. The dark brown jacket and pants were typical of the dress of Ozerow’s young men. Were these typically Jewish garments or do educated Gentiles wear them also? There was no point answering these questions since I had no other suit. I then put on the new hip boots for which I had paid half of my newly acquired fortune. These, my mother said, make you look like a real Goy. Father corrected her. He is a Jew—he will never look like a Goy. He’s just dressing for Purim.

By now the bundle I was to take with me was neatly packed. It contained a shirt, a blanket, shaving equipment, two pairs of socks, and a pair of Tefillin. “We did not pack the Rabbenu Tam Tefillin,” Father noted. Rashi’s Tefillin would be enough for one parading as a Goy. I said nothing, not wishing to shock him with the news that as a Goy, I would no longer wear Tefillin. My little sister Shifrah asked whether she could reveal our secret. Aaron wanted permission to wear my discarded shoes. Mother put a shawl around my neck, “You have been sickly since your birth.”

It was a dark and overcast night as I left the house and the town of my birth. Except for three and a half years in the Yeshivah, academies whose only subject of instruction was Talmud, my entire world consisted of Ozerow and its surrounding villages and forests. Now I was leaving my birthplace, going to the railroad station to purchase a ticket going nowhere. At that time I did not know that there existed tables that listed all the stops of the train. I decided to listen carefully to the people who preceded me in buying the tickets, asking for the same locality. I had already crossed the street when I heard my younger brother and sister calling me. With the tears in her eyes still unwiped, Shifrah told me that I had forgotten to take my false identification papers, which she proceeded to put into my pocket, while giving me a final kiss.

On Saturday nights young people usually filled Ozerow’s main street, strolling and talking incessantly. Tonight the streets were completely deserted. A lone Jewish policeman saw me cross the way to the railroad. The previous time I had seen him was when he had kicked me with his right boot for failing to show up for a labor brigade sent to help pave the roads. “I apologize for what I did to you a month ago,” he said. “My advice is that you return home. Gangs of shkotzim, some armed with knives and others with revolvers, are killing anyone fleeing the town and robbing whatever they can find.” “But I have false identification papers,” I said naively.

Leaving him, I reached the town’s last major structure, the mill, which formerly belonged to my Grandfather. This reminded me of an anecdote he had told me when I was about ten years old. A certain Hayyim Yankel Rochwerk had borrowed my Grandfather’s Russian passport, using it as identification for smuggling vodka from across the border to Galicia, which was not far from Sandomierz. Intercepted by the Gendarmes, he was asked for his full name. But his mind blanked out and he could not remember Grandfather’s name at all. Neither could he identify the Cyrillic alphabet to refresh his memory. He finally blurted out: “I swear by God, I can’t tell you my real name but it isn’t Hayyim Yankel Rochwerk.”

While trudging along the way I was memorizing the following refrain: “I am not Ben Zion Wacholder, my name is Waclaw Jazcec Kaczynski, Wacek for short.” My father’s name is not Pinehas Shelomoh, but Jozerf Kaczynski, and my mother’s name is Marysia, not née Lederman, but née Solsky. Ozerow was not my birthplace but Brzec Litwski. Remember, Bentzy, I repeated to myself. From today on, what is true is false: what is false is true.

<< Previous Page 1  2  3  4  5  6  Next Page >>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *