As for Pan Wojtocki’s cottage and barn, I remembered best the cow. She calved in January and soon thereafter I would come every sunset to watch Wojtocki milk her. Mr. Wojtocki was a kind peasant philosopher and a pious Catholic. “Have you seen the full face of the full moon,” he would inquire. “Yes,” I said. “But if you watch intensely, he insisted, you will see the face of Christ.” Quoting both Aristotle and Maimonides which I had read in Reb Yehiel’s library, I responded that that was impossible. Jesus was a mortal whereas the moon formed part of the heavenly bodies that are made up of a special element, not found on the earth. Earthly matters consist of the four elements: the heavenly of a fifth element called helium. Wojtocki could not quote Aristotle, so he asked his priest how to respond to the Jewish boy to whom he sells his milk. The priest advised him not to sell milk or talk to the Jewish infidel who are getting what they deserve for killing God.
Now, this barn served as quarters for the Polish police in the operation of the resettlement of the Jews of Ozerow. It was from there the bullets that almost killed me had come.
It then occurred to me that the cows could offer better protection than the forged Kenkarte tucked securely in my pocket. Loosening the cows’ ropes from the trees, I tied the two ends together. The cows followed me willingly as I lead them downhill towards the open road that connected Ozerow with the neighboring villages. Motorized vehicles carried Germans toward Ozerow to participate in the deportation. They simply drove around the presumptuous peasant boy who paid them apparently no intention as he was leading two cows to the bull. One vehicle did stop for a moment and the driver shouted at me to get the hell out of the middle of the road or else he would order his lieutenant to do to us Polish peasants what they were about to do to the verfluchte Juden. I said nothing, merely smiling to his face, as though he had complimented me on my fine cows.
The three of us must have traversed some two or three kilometers, for we soon came to the spot where the road forked off to Zawichost. Up to this point I was running away from Ozerow without ever considering where I was going. Now I was facing two signs, one which pointed to Annopol (or in Yiddish, Rachev) and the other to Zawichost. Rachev was somewhat nearer, but I had never been there. Besides, to reach that town one had to cross the bridge over the Vistula, which was an important route for the military vehicles going to the Russian front, and sometimes was heavily guarded. Zawichost lay on the western side of the river, and as far as I knew its Jews had not as yet been deported. Zawichost was my father’s birthplace, and I had visited the town on my way to catch the steamboat to Warsaw, on my way to the Yeshivah at Baranowicze some years earlier.
The cows were good company. I recited to them. They seemed to listen intensely to recitations of Isaiah Chapter 1: “The ox knows its master and the ass…” the cows at first paid no attention to the peasants on horse and wagon as well as on foot going en masse to Ozerow. It was clear that these peasants were not going to church. They went to share in the booty—scraps left over from the destruction of Ozerow. Two youngsters about my age approached me to advise me to let the cows stay with some peasants. There was no way I could drag the two animals, or even one all the way to Zawichost.
The cows had served their purpose, diverting any suspicion that I was running away from the German. I released them in the middle of the road to their own devices, and I hurried on my way to Zawichost.
As a child I frequently had overheard Father relating what had been told to him about his mother’s death at his birth, and his father’s death two years later. Grandfather Mendil Wacholder prospered as a merchant of timber, logging trees from the surrounding forests which were shipped on the Vistula to Danzig. Scattered books containing endless tables of logarithms were the only physical remains of my paternal grandfather. These volumes frustrated me since I used to memorize every tome in the house, but I could not understand the meaning of sines and cosines. My father could make sense out of these tables, since prior to my birth he had engaged in the business of cutting timber, an occupation, I was told, that was founded by the patriarch of the Wacholders who owned large estates in the Lipsk and Krasznik. In my days, my father’s cousin Meylech Wacholder (who had seven daughters) still owned a woodcutting factory.
Orphaned in early childhood, my father and his sister Simtche were brought up in Zawichost by grandmother’s brother Zalmen Guthotz, who also took possession of my grandfather’s patrimony, acting as the “apitropes” of the underage children. He quickly lost the fortune entrusted to him, compelling him to leave the timber business altogether and earn his living as a bookkeeper in the Zawichost bank.
Zalmen’s other children now lived in Warsaw but his youngest son Eli inherited the position of bookkeeper upon his father death. Uncle Zalmen used to visit us from time to time, but I had been to Eli’s house only once, on my journey to the yeshivah. Some years later I slept in that house for two nights and was fed dinner once but I had failed to adequately express my thanks for this hospitality, taking it for granted that cousins are in this world to could fed and house unhappy family members. Recollections of years gone by ought not to count now that I was coming to Eli ravished, with my pants and shirt covered with cow’s urine and excrement. But somehow they did. Seeing Eli’s bank and the waterfront where I took the boat to Warsaw made a deep impression on me.
In distance Zawichost was some 20 kilometers from Ozerow; in civilization some hundreds of miles away. Zawichost only had one main street, unlike Ozerow, whose main street branched out into lesser streets, alleys and side roads. The houses in Zawichost were all wooden. Many of them of were of a pre-first world war vintage, with interiors dominated by huge wood burning ovens upon which the younger members of the family would sleep in the winter and summer. The Yiddish spoken there was pronounced like the Jews of Galicia, especially in Sandomierz, and people would shake more intensely when reciting the prayers. Unlike Ozerow, which went through a transformation starting in 1918, when Poland was detached from Russia, the people of Zawichost, especially its youth, retained their ancient way of doing things. Thus Zionism and socialism which so deeply affected my native town had made few inroads in Zawichost.
I felt an immense relief as I knocked on Cousin Eli’s door. I had started out before dawn as a Jewish youth escaping what seemed to be hell on this earth and had been reduced to an animal and peasant shepherd for some hours. In spite of the kenkarte tucked away in my pocket, I was a Jew again, really my name was still Ben Zion Wacholder who was going to visit his not too favorite cousin in Zawichost.