My Last Simchat Torah In My Shtetl


     The High Holidays are called Yamim Noraim, Hebrew for "The Days of Awe." As we recently celebrated the Simchat Torah holiday, the rejoicing for the Torah, I couldn't help but remember those Yamim Noraim days in October of 1939. At that time the holidays were literally, "Days of Awe."

     I remembered my last Simchat Torah in my home town. On September 1, 1939, the Nazis attacked Poland. They were lucky that the weather was favorable all throughout the offensive. Personally I challenged God's wisdom, why was He so accommodating?

     If it had rained, the Nazi hordes would have become immobile with their motorized army. Poland had no paved roads, and the roads regularly turned into mud puddles after each rain.

     After the Nazis completed the occupation of Poland, they immediately dropped their human mask and brutally began ruling the conquered territories that they had won in their Blitzkrieg.

     A few days into the war, my brother and I met at our married sister's house who lived close to the cities where my brother and I worked. When the occupation settled down, my brother and I became very worried about our father who lived at home by himself. We decided that we must find a way to find out how he was faring.

     Our shtetl was 60 kilometers from where we were. Jews were already forbidden to travel. For the love for our father we decided to ignore the dangers, and that one of us should go there by foot. Since I was younger and stronger and looked less Jewish than my brother, I undertook the mission, even though it was dangerous for a Jewish boy to wander through villages void of Jews.

     Dressed as a peasant boy, I left my sister's house and hoped to reach a Jewish farmhouse, halfway through my journey before curfew hour. However it took me longer than I expected and I arrived there at dusk.

     The Jewish farmer couldn't let me in because he was forbidden by the Gestapo to shelter strangers. In the conversation behind his closed doors he hinted to me that he feared more from his neighbors than from the Gestapo.

     At his suggestion I crawled into a haystack and slept there through the night. At daybreak, the farmer woke me up, gave me some food and with a sad face and heavy sigh he gave me a warm send off, wishing me a safe journey.

     I was familiar with the route because I had traveled that route by horse and buggy many times before the war. I continued my march in the direction of a small city, a distance of a bout 20 kilometers. The weather was warm, perfect fall weather for this part of Poland.

     I was young and healthy, and was well rested. Therefore, my walk was brisk without being disturbed by anyone. In my peasant clothes I did not look too Jewish. For a Jewish boy to dare to travel amidst villagers was inconceivable.

     Only once did a young fellow approach me, asking for cigarettes. I gladly obliged with a few extras for later, and that put his mind at ease and he didn't ask questions.

     There was silence all around, disturbed only by noises of domestic animals which that at that particular time, were less dangerous than human noises.

     Once in a while, a German military truck or a motorcycle passed by without bothering me. For a while I forgot about the war and the Jewish tragedy as I admired the scenery with its serenity.

     The orchards were loaded with ripe fruit, and the pastures were still lush green-to me it looked like a picture of perfection. I reached a little enclave a bit after eight in the morning. I knew the place from my previous visits.

     Like many other little shtetls in Galicia, Brzostek was a tiny Jewish town of about fifty families surrounded by many villages. The people that lived here served as middlemen. They bought products from the peasants and shipped them out to bigger cities. Small stores supplied the peasants with merchandise that did not grow on the farm. There were also a few artisans, like tailors, cobblers, hat makers and a blacksmith.

     There was certain interdependence between the Jews and non-Jews. Their relationship was based on necessity and not on friendship. There were two families that I knew from before because the heads of the families were natives of my shtetl.

     One of them was Mendele Grosskopf. His father was my father's friend so that's where I decided to stop and rest, and later resume my journey. When I approached the Groskopf house I heard subdued voices from inside, voices familiar to my ears, which were from holiday morning prayers.

     It was Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of the Sukkoth Holiday. At my first knock on the door, the sounds abruptly stopped and there was complete silence.

     After I loudly identified myself, I was quickly ushered in and the door was closed behind me. I took one look at those pale scared faces and saw the entire tragedy that had befallen the Jewish People.

     The people had been conducting the holiday services and thought that they had been discovered by their neighbors, or worse yet by the Nazis. Before I entered the room they had hastily removed their prayer shawls but now the put them on again and continued the services.

     They did not have a Torah Scroll, nor a fresh Etrog and Lulav. They did have a shofar. There was a dry lulav from yesteryear, which was symbolically resting on a table.

     I joined the prayers, and when we reached the verse: "Out of the depth I call Thee," (Psalms 130:1) everyone had tears in his eyes. They cried like little children. It broke my heart into pieces.

     We all realized the serious situation that we were in, but did not know then how the tragedy would end. During the Hoshanot the lulav passed from hand to hand, and when it reached the last person it was soaked wet from tears.

     Why was Jewish suffering endless? I asked myself. Rebellious thoughts kept paining my mind; Why? Why are we the Chosen People? At that moment I was ready to surrender the high sounding title of, Chosen people to anyone who would be willing to accept it. Chosen for what, I thought.

     For murder, pogroms and all the other troubles? I continued my chain of thoughts, telling myself: "Do I have a choice?"

     I suddenly remembered a quote from the Ethics of Our Fathers, 5:29: "Perforce you were born, perforce you live, perforce you shall die." After the gathered had departed I was treated with a nice breakfast. During the meal I told my host about the situation of the Jews in the town from where I had come from, and about the uncertainty that lie ahead for all of us.

     Mr. Grosskopf did not foresee that his life was destined would be cut short soon, and that he would die a hero's death. Being a respectful citizen in the community, the Nazis made him the head of the Jewish Ghetto Council. After his fatal nomination, he was ordered to supply a list of all able-bodied people for forced labor.

     The next day he was handed a list with his name only. He was shot on the spot. Mendel Grosskopf was a Talmudic scholar, a God fearing humble man, discreetly charitable. He returned his righteous body and soul to his Maker.

     In the late afternoon I reached the outskirts of my birthplace. My first depressing welcome came when I encountered a group of Jewish people doing forced labor. They were forced to repair the roads leading into town with their bare hands.

     The irony of it, was, that their oppressor was a Ukrainian who after participating in the pogroms in the Ukraine with the Petlura bands, escaped justice by settling in our shtetl.

     For many years the Jews employed him as a janitor in the prayer houses. Now he again had a chance to show his true colors. He was one of the first collaborators in our town.

     Fortunately, his career as oppressor did not last long. In a dispute with a friend he was reported to the Gestapo as a troublemaker and was promptly sent away to a place of no return.

     Arriving home, I found my father of blessed memory in good stead. It was a tearful reunion well received by my father. He appreciated the risk I had taken to come home to see him and tell him about my sister's family and my brother.

     The house was empty of food and other necessities. Nothing was prepared for the holiday that was beginning tonight. There was some bread supplied by our good friend, Mordechai the baker. He remembered my father during our absence. He provided my father with bread all throughout the bad times until the expulsion to a larger ghetto. We remember his goodness forever.

     After sunset, my father and I went to a neighbor's house to participate in the holiday service. The holiday Shemini Atseret is described in the Bible as a time of rejoicing. During regular times, before the outbreak of the war it was customary in our town to conduct Hakafot, as a preview for Simchat Torah, (the dancing with the Torah.)

     People sang and danced endlessly. On this night however, barely anyone raised his voice. The words of the prayers were stuck in the worshippers' throats. The service resembled a service in a mourner's house, or the reading of the lamentations on Tisha b'Av.

     Everyone was visibly heartbroken. During the services I reminisced about the joyous celebrations of previous years: the colorful flags that the children carried topped with red apples and a lit candle (which was stuck in the apples).

     The children pushed each other trying to kiss Rabbi Shapiro's little Torah. It was a special small sized scroll that the rabbi carried with him when he traveled abroad. With love and devotion the rabbi bent down to each child, so he could reach and kiss his Torah Tonight, the worshippers felt in their hearts that under the brutality of the Nazis that flooded us with a sea of hatred our lives were fraught with mortal danger.

     We were not tolerated much before, but now God and mankind had abandoned us. Despite my pessimistic outlook, like a good Jew, a ray of hope was still nestling in my heart. Jews are known for their stiff-neckedness, not in vain. The thrust and belief in the Almighty never diminished, even in the most tragic moments.

     That Simchat Torah night I made up my mind, come what it may, my brother and I had to get out from this hopeless situation. The only way out, was to escape to the Soviet Union, across the newly established borders near our town.

     On October 25, 1939, my brother and I left our birthplace Strzyzow with the hope that we would be able to come home for the Passover holiday. By the grace of God we both survived. To our sorrow, we never saw our father, sister and her family again. God shall avenge their innocent blood.

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