The Last Night Before The Hurban of Ozerow

Having walked about halfway to the station, my musings were interrupted by cries mingling with Polish curses. The cries were from fleeing Jews being burglarized and beaten by Catholic gangs. Shaya Fried, the policeman, was right. The rats fleeing the ship are being trapped by the Poles. Ozerow’s few Catholics and those from the surrounding villages had made vodka in joyful anticipation of the deportation of the Jews. Not only would they get rid of the hateful infidels, whose death hardly mattered, since they would go to hell anyway, but they believed the deportation would bring a chance to rise from rags to riches. They did not believe that Ozerow’s houses were almost completely bare, and that even prior to the war this was one of the most destitute Jewish towns in the region. Now, three years after the war began whatever wealth there had been was almost exhausted. The only thing Ozerow’s Jews had in abundance were rats and lice. But these Goyim were themselves desperately hungry, and like cannibals were awaiting the prey which would fall into their hands on the Lord’s Day.

Many Poles couldn’t wait for the appointed day. Some went to their former Jewish patrons with requests of money, textiles, or transfer the deeds to their houses. Others, having heard what many Jews tried to do the night before the deportation, laid in waiting for any Jew who was approaching the way to the railroad station.

Before I had a chance to turn back, three youths about my age or a year older, were shouting at me: “Stop, stop pierdòlony zydzie, fucking Jew, Your time has come. You will no longer kill Christian infants for Passover blood. Give us all that you have.”

The attackers acted skillfully. They had observed me approaching for some time but waited until I came within ten meters before stopping me. I had not seen them because they were standing behind a barn, and I failed to notice them even as they were coming towards me. My eyeglasses with their thick lenses had been left at home, since in our area only Jews wore spectacles. By appearance alone, with my blondish hair, blue eyes, and straight nose, I could pass as what was considered Arian, but glasses indicated intellectuality, an entirely Jewish characteristic.

Even with my spectacles, my vision never attained 20/20, since I was not only severely near-sighted, but was suffering from incipient macular degeneration whose true dimensions only became clear some three decades later. As a child Father advised me against wearing glasses, in order to aggravate my vision and help free me from military service, as extreme myopia did for him. Poor vision was of little consequence in Judaic studies since I could see the print when I kept my nose on top of the page. In the public schools where I could never see what the teacher had written on the blackboard, the school regarded me as a slow learner, failing me constantly and keeping me back for two years in the second grade. Now I was beginning a new life with the severe handicap of being deprived of my thick spectacles.

One of the youths grabbed my right arm and pulled on my lapel, the other put his two hands around my neck and the third was slapping and kicking me. “Give us your money, and everything you have. Or we will kill you and take it anyway. You dirty Jew you’ve no right to live.”

I handed them the 1400 zlotys. But they were not satisfied. Previous victims had yielded ten times as much cash. They proceeded to search and undress me, ripping off my clothes to look for hidden money. They took my money and my new boots and, leaving me half naked with my clothes scattered in the chilly night, went off looking for more prosperous victims.

By now it was after 11 o’clock and the next passenger train was scheduled for noon the next day. Barefoot, jacket torn, nose bleeding, and aching all over, I began to trudge back home. It was already after midnight when I signaled my presence by giving two loud and one gentle knocks on the windowpane in the back of the house. No one in the house had gone to sleep; the kerosene lamp was lit up full blast. My first adventure as a Goy has not gone too well, I announced, telling them what had occurred. Shifrah was overjoyed at seeing me. Aaron expressed her sentiments: It’s good, you are coming with, we will all go together. He took off the shoes that had been mine before putting on the new boots.

Father cited a line from Avot: “al deateyft….” which simply rendered means: “They have stolen from you what you stole from others.” Shifrah had told him how she had absconded with the package of 100 zloty notes and Father had insisted that the two of them, he and Shifrah, go ask Israel Mosheh his forgiveness. He could not face his creator with such a stain on his record.

Mother washed off my face and bloody back and sat down to repair and clean my torn jacket and pants. Fortunately only the seams were torn, and her repairs resembled machine work, at least if one didn’t look too closely. Fortunately also, she found my false identification Kenkarte and my baptismal certificate in the ripped back pocket.

I lay down and fell asleep immediately. I awakened long before the rise of the morning star, either on my own or awakened by one of my parents. No one except myself had evidently slept that night. All five of us were present at the family counsel. After the dismal failure of last night, the question was whether to let fate take its course or to frustrate fate. Father’s inexhaustible mastery of Midrashic lore proved decisive. The idolaters believe in fate: we Jews believe in God. Abraham did not believe in fate. He left for the Promised Land without knowing of its existence. Jacob feared Esau, but he did not give up. He divided his camp into two groups. One goes hither and the other thither. Our Sages teach us: If you fail, try again. God is good: he has given us hope. These were his last words as I bid my family good-bye for the second time within the same night, full of bruises, and groshenless.

When I walked out of the kitchen, this time I turned right instead of left, towards the back of the house to catch a final glimpse of my father, mother, brother, and sister watching my departure through the back window. As my eyes met theirs, I could not see much, as I was half blind without my spectacles. Still, I felt that they were beckoning me to come back. For a moment I hesitated, not knowing what to do—return home to join the family come what may, or walk away. I recalled how the two youths from Tarlow who had escaped so grieved leaving their families on their march to the railroad station, that they decided to join the deportation of Ozerow’s Jews. Wasn’t it cowardice to leave your family unprotected? With the recent incident at the railroad station still fresh in my mind, and my bones still aching from the beating at Yashitz, I lacked the strength to begin a new adventure.

I was so absorbed in thought that I paid no attention to the ever-increasing noise. Suddenly I heard the sound of vehicles converging not far from the front of the house. In Ozerow the main means of transportation was horse, and the passing of a motorized carriage was a noticeable event. The Germans still used cavalry, but they brought the best that they had for the deportation of Jews. There was nothing I could do to help my family or to kill the murderers.

Instead of going back into the house, I turned around and ran towards the two houses that separated our home from the open fields in the east. What struck me then was the folly of pacifism in the face of evil. Ghandi and his followers could use non-resistance as a weapon against the British, but such weapons are completely useless against real evil. Why did not the youth of Ozerow stand up against evil? Now that we had failed there was nothing to do but to run away.

I have no idea how many fled the town that night but I am sure that quite a few did. Some hoped to find refuge in hideouts they paid peasants for. Others stayed in the forests. Still others excavated their cellars, filling them with supplies. But I was not aware then of these people. As far as I was concerned, I was fleeing not only my father’s house but the town of Ozerow, a community that had existed for hundreds of years, and the Jewish people as well. Now all the Jews of the world have been wiped out. I might be the only Noah who survives in the ocean of Goyim.

The intention of the Gentiles soon became clear. When I reached the open fields I could see the light penetrating the morning mist. But I could also see what seemed to be moving torches, one of which was coming directly towards me. They were encircling the town with flares to prevent anyone from fleeing. The torch must have been quite near me since even my near-sighted eyes noticed the khaki uniforms of the Ukranians. He had apparently not seen me. I tried to move faster and on all fours. But he heard me.

“Stop you cursed Jew,” he shouted, shooting with his Carbine. He must have emptied his entire fuselage on me because the shots were coming for a long while. But soon I was out of his reach.

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