Latest update: April 11th, 2012
By Rayzel Reich, as told by her grandfather, Mr. Efraim Reich
It was Moishele, and Itche, and me. We did everything together. We even made our own language, which only we understood. In shul they jokingly called us “the troika,” after the three bishops whose authority extended across Poland.
Then the War came. Things became… different.
The Judenrat picked Itche to work as a houseboy for Herr Garbler, the Gestapo chief who had moved into town.
Dr. Mikolaikow, my kind Polish doctor, offered to hire me so that I wouldn’t have to work for the Germans. He lived next door to the Gestapo, so at least Itche and I sometimes saw each other while we worked.
Rebbe’s door was always open. We came, we went, we learned… but yeshiva wasn’t the same. We weren’t carefree yeshiva bachurim now. We were workers, slaves, perhaps, stealing moments of peace when we could. We came to talk, to sing, to learn, to eat…A moment with our Rebbe was a stolen moment.
Rebbe – R’ Sruel Leib- was different. He seemed to grow, even as he shrunk, his cheeks thinner, gaunt. There were moments when his eyes were haunted… but mostly they were fiery black, seeing through you, loving you to your core.
You were created in the image of God, Rebbe told us. You are Godly beings. Whatever happens, remember that. Be a man. Hold your head high. Know who you are, on the inside, no matter what.
Nobody, nobody, can ever take that away from you.
R’ Sruel Leib’s thin frame seemed to take up the whole small room. His eyes burned.
What God decrees…is not always possible for men to change. We must face a decree, and learn to accept it from our Father in heaven. As men, who hold their head high.
But those who torment us… Who seek to beat us into the very earth… Do not allow them to crush you! My students… Know who you are, beloved children of God… You can resist, you can, in your heart. As long as you are master of yourself… you will never be a slave.
I have “poisoned you,” he said, that sin may never taste good on your lips. You are noble people.
And we were… all Rebbe’s talmidim were noble people.
Itche was, like the rest. Itche was refined, Itche was sensitive, Itche was proud.
We tried to make time to get together, all three of us, when we could. After all, we were the troika.
Itche, Moishele, and me.
Then came the first Aktzion. Herr Garbler removed his mask, and the blood of Jews flowed free.
Moishele’s family was murdered. He was sent as a slave to an airplane factory in distant Reishau, but he was safe. We knew that from his letters.
I ran Dr. Mikolaikow, who offered to hide my family. He hid me in an underground bunker beneath his garage.
And Itche… Itche was safe, houseboy for Herr Garbler, shining shoes in the Gestapo’s house a stone’s throw from where I was hidden.
Garbler liked Itche. He liked him so much, in fact, that he let his sisters live. Illegally. Incredibly, Garbler ordered the Judenrat to give Itche three extra food cards. For his two sisters and their friend, hiding in Itche’s house…
It went against everything he stood for. But he did it…for Itche.
Itche also had an older brother, Yankel. Yankel was still legal. He worked with a group of fifty other Jews for a German firm near the railroad.
And so Itche and his siblings lived, and survived every day, and held their breath, and hoped to live the next one.
There are always rumors.
Itche hears a rumor. He hears that Garbler is walking with Yankel’s workgroup, that he is heading towards a field at the edge of the ghetto.
An open field…a group of Jewish boys, with Garbler…that is danger.
Garbler and his assistant make their way toward the railroad. Ahead is an overpass that Yankel’s work group must cross on their way home to the ghetto.
Garbler motions for his assistant to stop.
They stand under the overpass, hidden from the sight of those that will come.
The group of Jewish workers makes its way down the road. The men and boys are tired, and hungry, and cold, but they talk, and make jokes, as they walk… After all this is life, and life must be lived.
Their feet clatter on the wood of the overpass. Soon they will be home, having a good supper… meager, but something… something hot…
There is home; a ghetto, but home, still dear…
The Gestapo Chief and his assistant are stepping out onto the overpass; they are blocking their way.
What is this?
Itche is running.
If it is true- if they are taken-
Garbler likes him, is fond of him- he can beg, he can plead- it is dangerous, but for Yankel-
Quickly, quickly, he is almost there, almost at the field-
He hears the shots.
Running, running, running- now he is there.
Garbler stops shooting.
Itche is there, standing at the bodies- Shmiel- Moishe Yusef- Yehuda Leib- I don’t know that face-Aron- Yankel.
Garbler looks at him, regret on his face. “I wish you would’ve come five minutes earlier.”
He lifts his hand in a resigned gesture. “Sorry… too late.”
There are no words to be said. There is nothing that can be done.
Itche’s mind unfreezes, and runs, and tumbles, SCREAMS-
Five minutes. Five minutes.
The garden. The street. The corner. The alley. The gate. The field. How fast did I run. Could I have run faster? Should’ve run faster. HAD to run faster. Fast enough? It will never be fast enough.
Yankel’s face is there, before his eyes. It will never leave.
Itche cannot look at Garbler anymore. He cannot bear to look his master in the face. He must leave, must escape…and must get his sisters out with him.
Bochnia. Father had escaped to Bochnia. The Dembitz ghetto runs with blood, but Bochnia still has time.
One day, when the Gestapo Chief is out, Itche goes into the garage to find Jan, Garbler’s chauffeur. He thinks the man can be trusted… for money.
“Jan,” he says, “Would you like to make some money?” Itche holds out a bundle of cash and studies the man’s face.
Jan looks back. “What do you need me to do?”
“Tomorrow,” Itche says, “I want you to bring the car to the house of Dr. Polacyk, in the street right near the ghetto gate. Three girls will come out. I want you to drive them to Bochnia.”
Jan tilts his cap back.
It is a risk; it is a big risk. To take Jews…? But Garbler’s car has a special Gestapo license plate… no one would suspect him if he took the car out for a short while…
He jams his cap back on his head. “Cash in advance,” he says “in full. I’ll be there at three o’clock in the afternoon.” Then he turns and strides out of the garage.
The afternoon is quiet.
Three girls make their way through the ghetto streets. They stop at the house of Dr. Polaczyk and stare up at the window.
Dr. Polaczyk is a Pole, but he is a good man. His house is on the edge of the ghetto, the window on the Jewish side and the front door facing the street.
Aidel fidgets in the cold. Surale and Minna move closer together. Their brother Itche has paid the driver, and told them what to do. Now they can only wait.
Soon a face appears. The doctor is there. The window silently slides open, and the doctor beckons. Surale helps Minna climb over, then Aidel, then boosts herself up and in.
The ghetto is behind them.
Dr. Polaczyk leads the children to the front door. He raises the shade and looks out. The car is there, silently parked. There are no passersby.
He opens the door and beckons to the girls. Surale takes a deep breath, and leads them out. Down the stairs, open the car door, into the car. The motor guns to life…They are going.
Jan drivers the Gestapo car slowly through the Dembitz streets. He goes all the way up to the long street leading away from the ghetto and turns right.
The three passengers are silent, waiting, frozen, hoping.
The car turns right again. Then it slows. A familiar house is coming into view. This is Garbler’s house. They have come back. Three white faces stare through the glass.
Jan’s door opens, and he steps out. He turns toward the house and calls towards the figure emerging from the door.
“Chief! Come and see the merchandise I’ve brought you!” His tone is exultant.
Garbler stands for a moment, poised on the top step.
Then he crisply steps down and heads toward the car.
Itche turns at the sound of his name.
“Itche! Garbler is looking for you! Get yourself to the garden, and fast!” The boy pants as he delivers his news.
Itche jolts, inside him. What-
He is off down the street.
His heart beats faster, flutters, pounds. What- did something happened- Jan… trustworthy? Did he sell them out?
Why does Garbler need him so bad?
Garbler is standing just inside the ghetto gate.
Itche’s eyes are on the Chief as he runs up, on the restrained fury behind the thin mouth.
Garbler is holding his pistol at the ready.
An iron hand clamps down on Itche’s shoulder. “Come with me,” Garbler spits out. Itche is pushed into a fast walk. He feels the energy radiating from the body beside him. Garbler is in a rage.
I don’t hear the shot that comes from Garbler’s garden.
I don’t hear the fall of the body. I don’t see the cap of a Jewish boy fall over the fence, into the garden above my hiding place. All I know, is that there is a feeling inside me- an uneasiness- sadness – deep, deep, loss…
I see the doctor’s feet coming down to the bunker.
He stoops in the darkness and stands still before me.
“Your friend, Itche…” he says, and pauses. “They got him.”
His feet move on the dirt floor, and he speaks again. “And his two sisters… and their friend. They got them, too.”
That is life.
We live, and we know we will die. We know others will die. They will. It is only a matter of when.
But also a matter of who.
Why, Aibishter…. Why…
I do not rebel before You… You are God, and You are Master of the universe, and You run this world as You see fit. But the question comes of itself, bursts out of me- Why, God, why?!? Are we people, God, or are we dogs… to be shot for sport… to be killed for no reason, at the mercy of others… helpless… not as humans….
Why, God, why…. Oh Aibishter, why…. Why…
It is the only escape for my pain.
It is twenty years after all that has happened on this street.
I am in Dembitz for the first time since then. It is all familiar, and all strange…
Dr. Mikolaikow was killed in the war, and his wife has moved. I am staying with their relative, Mrs. Baginsky who lives across the street from the house where the Doctor lived. I will only stay here one night.
This street is soaked with blood.
Mrs. Baginski shows me to a bed in the front room of the house. She comes close and gestures to the window.
“You see there…?” she says, and points to a slight mound of earth beneath a young tree. Her eyes see the past. “They killed a boy, the Gestapo… That’s what I heard. They did it in their yard, but then they dragged the body here. I didn’t know if it was true or not.”
She pauses, and looks at the young tree.
“I wanted to dig up the tree, and replant it in the back garden,” she says. “When I started digging, I found a body.”
Silence ticks past.
“When I saw the body, I stopped digging and put the earth back.”
We stare at the tree.
Then she turns, silently, and leaves the room.
A tree grows from Itche’s grave. For that is Itche.
I feel nauseated, repulsed. I cannot look at that tree. It sits there in my stomach, this revulsion. I can’t lie down, I cannot sleep. All night I try to lie, and I sit up, and I try not to look at the tree, and I look at the tree.
All I see is Itche.
Year in, year out, I remembered the day.
Adar rishon. The twenty third. That is Itche’s yahrtzeit.
I stand up for Shefoch Chamascha and stare at the words. Pour out your anger….
I am an American, born in a free land, who does not know fear or bitterness or hatred.
I look up and see the expression on my grandmother’s face. It is hard, chiseled in lines of bitter pain that have been drawn and etched seventy years ago.
I look at my grandfather. His sweet, kind face is hot and hard. Stony bitterness pours from his voice, pours from the rock buried deep inside him.
And I know.
For Reb Sruel Leib, the rebbe dearest to my heart, who made me into a man.
For Shaul, my friend, who never saw his sixteenth birthday.
For Yocheved, my oldest sister, whose life died within me when she was shot.
For my Uncle Yossy, and my Tante Hudis and my Tante Chaya…
For my grandmother Fayga, and my grandfather Bentzion, and my grandfather Duvid, and all my cousins, beautiful, kind children whose blood ran in my veins.
And for Itche.
Itche… Itche, my friend, who lived in my heart, and who died in my heart, and whose hole pierces my heart until today.
Pour out Your fury, God, on the nations who have not known You…
For they have consumed Yaakov… Pour out Your wrath, and the smoke of Your nostrils shall overtake them. Chase them with fury, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of God.
For Itche, God, oh God, for my family, my blood, oh for Itche…
Itche is not here. And yet he is here, shining in the red stream trickles from the Itche-hole in Zeida’s heart. Zeida’s face is furrowed, concentrating…hard.
Pursue them with fury…and destroy them…
Comfort me, oh Aibishter, by avenging Itche’s blood.
I look at my Zeida, and I see Itche.
Only the Aibishter can avenge his blood.
But I, Zeida… my sisters, and my brother, and my cousins, and I –
We will remember your friend Itche.
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