Ostrowiece without Jews

by Dr. Chaim Shoshkes

Excerpted from Ostrowiec; A Monument on the Ruins of an Annihilated Jewish Community (Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski, Poland, translation of  Sefer Ostrovtsah: le-zikaron ule-'edut, Editor: Gershon Silberberg, Meir Shimon Geshuri, Tel Aviv 1971

It is a five o’clock summer dawn when I take leave of the uncanny, historic old marketplace in Tzoyzmir and travel by car on the long road toward Warsaw.

Further… further … we travel into the suburb of Ostrowiec. A large Jewish community once lived here—more than 15,000 souls, I believe. The town contained huge metal factories, and the Jewish population was economically better off than the Jews in the neighboring towns.

It was a large Hasidic center, as well as a center of secular cultural activities.

Now, at the entrance to the town, I recall the people whom I met when I had come here to found the cooperative people’s bank: city hall member Beigelman, the Agudah activist R. Avraham Mintzberg, Doctor Wachalder, the director Henech Royzman….

This time, however, I have no address to go to. I stand near a church with black wooden spires, from which comes singing and the sound of an organ. I glance inside: it is full, although the time is just seven in the morning, filled with worshippers who are holding candles.

As I stand and look through the pickets into the church, a priest in a white, clean shirt with a red collar, a sign of his high clerical rank, comes out of a house next to the church.

I want to disappear, but the priest stops me with a friendly “Good morning” and “May God bless you,” and I answer in kind.

The priest comes out through the small door onto the street, where I am waiting near my car.

I introduce myself as a guest from America, a Jewish writer who is traveling here and knows the town from the past, and I mention the few names of the prominent social activists noted above.

The priest tells me that Dr. Wachalder and Beigelman had been his friends. He tells me as well that not a single Jew lives here anymore. He adds with a sad expression on his face that unfortunately, “my Christian Polish fellow-believers” have not kept in touch with the few Jews who came back to Ostrowiec after the Nazis were defeated and Poland’s independence was restored.

What he tells me isn’t the entire truth, as I am later told by my writer colleague, K. Khermatz of Brazil, who was one of those who returned to the town after the war. After the destruction, 80 Jews came back to their home town of Ostrowiec. Poles murdered six of them, all young people. The remainder, understandably, fled. The victims were buried and a tombstone was placed over their mass grave. When an Ostrowiec Jew came for a visit a few years later, he found that the tombstone had been broken into pieces.

And now the priest tells me a story that causes everything to grow dark before my eyes.

“Do you see the house I just came out of? That is the parish house, the priests’ quarters. During the time of the Nazis, I lived there by myself. A few Jewish friends who were driven off to the slaughter in Tzoyzmir left their children with me—five boys, none older than six years.

“I was denounced to the murderers, and they came to take away the children. I fell on my knees and wept. With the cross in my hand, I begged them. They pushed me aside, laughed at me, and threatened to shoot me.

“And the children? They were shot here on the spot—one after the other, angelic, precious.

“And there still rings in my ears the small voice of a six-year-old boy, who fell to his knees before an SS man and begged him with his hands clasped together, ‘Nyekh pan manye nye zabia—kh’che yeshtshe zshitsh. Sir, do not kill me. I want to live.’ But the ‘sir’ shot him and the child fell.”

When the priest senses that I am growing cold, that little by little I am losing my senses, that I [am resting] my head on the iron picket and shivering, he pats my back.

I calm down a little. I ask the priest to write his name in my address book. He writes, “Ksyandz [?] prelate Ivan Rutkavski of the church next to the Highest Call of Jesus’ Heart” (that is the name of the mausoleum [kashtshial]).

A broken person, I take my leave from the priest Rutkavski, and travel to where the old wooden synagogue had stood, and which had been built ten years before Columbus discovered America.

It had been painted with hundreds of scenes from the Bible and hung with tens of heavy copper menorahs.

Somewhere the old beis medrash had stood. A great singer, R. Akiva Mushkes had been the cantor.

My thoughts go to distant Rio de Janeiro, where R. Akiva’s daughter Bluma with her husband Yisrael Saubel are now among the leading personalities of Brazilian Judaism. In their beautiful home, they always host me, the Jewish wanderer. And Bluma stands at the piano and still sings melodies, distant reclamations from the Ostrowiec cantor, her old father.