Melitz (or Mielic) was a small shtetl in Poland. The following article is based on authentic Yiddish quotes from the original Melitz archives (courtesy Yad Vashem in Jerusalem). All the names are real.

By the end of 1939, some 250,000 Jews had died in Nazi-occupied Poland through torture, shooting, starvation and disease. Extermination camps were not yet on the Nazi drawing boards.

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But it is precisely those first few weeks of the war – so often neglected because they are overshadowed by the extermination machine developed in the years to come – that has a drama all its own. We can capture in it a reflection of the spirit of the shtetl – the last brilliant glow, about to be shattered as Satan began recreating heaven and earth.

* * *

Upon their arrival in Melitz, the German occupying forces behaved with aloof courtesy toward the Jewish population. Unbelievable rumors of German cruelty had reached the Jews from towns far and near. Fearing repercussions, the Jews kept their communal institutions – synagogue, slaughterhouse, mikveh – closed. But in light of their initial personal experiences with the Germans, the Melitzer Jews were baffled and perplexed. The devil, evidently, was painted darker than he appeared in reality.

As the more devout among Melitz’s Jews understood, one never questions God’s unfathomable mysteries but instead is ever grateful for His grace. And how better to demonstrate gratitude than to dedicate oneself to the observance of Rosh Hashanah with all the ardor at one’s disposal?

On such a holy occasion, tor men nit dos yiddishkeit lozn hefker – one dare not neglect the observance of Judaism.

In honor of Rosh Hashanah, it was agreed by the men of Melitz that (a) darf men machn a heise mikveh – there must be a hot mikveh; (b) un zoln Yidn zich toivlen – the Jews should immerse themselves in it; and (c) in dem zchus, vet hakodosh boruch hu helfn az es vet zein sholem al Yisroel, un di reshoim vern nisht hobn kein shlite undz shlechts zu ton – as a reward the Holy One Blessed be He will help that there be peace for the Jewish nation and the evil ones will not possess the power to do harm.

The town’s rebbe certainly found nothing objectionable in the reasoning of the ba’alei batim: Avade azoi – certainly so. M’darf veiter haltn dos Yiddishkeit, vos iz gevorn beshefel hamatzav – we must continue to observe Yiddishkeit, which was lately so neglected.

“But why only the mikveh?” spoke up Itche Nosn, the gabbai of the synagogue. “In honor of Yom Tov shouldn’t we have a slice of meat?”

Thereupon the rebbe asked that the shochtim, Reb Yoshe Ber and Reb Chayml Kurz, be summoned, and he ordered them to get ready for the task of slaughtering chickens for the festive Rosh Hashanah meal. And the mikveh-keeper was told to make sure the water was hot – a haise mikveh, as the records of the Jewish community read – for the special occasion.

Dernoch hot der gabai a klap gegebn in shulchan un machriz un moidi’a geven farn oilem – the gabbai made sure the community was duly informed about the availability of meat and mikveh. The leaders began discussing some crucial questions of Jewish observance in time of war, and how to accommodate the numerous refugees assembled in their community – among them the old, highly respected Reb Naftoli Melech Wassershtrum from Yastshomavke, who fled his town with a sefer Torah in his arms and had been given the honor of leading Rosh Hashanah services the next morning.

Even as they were debating issues of halacha, thick smoke began to rise from the chimney of the mikveh and the noise of women taking their chickens to the slaughterhouse filtered through the streets.

Rosh Hashanah was in the air, with its heartfelt prayers for forgiveness, its heartrending pleas for security in an unsafe and unpredictable world, and its warm reaffirmation of the bond between God and His Chosen People.

While communal leaders conducted their deliberations and made their preparations, the mayor and the city council were treating the German officers to an elaborate banquet at City Hall.

The Germans gorged themselves with food and there was no end to the hard drinking as glasses kept clinking to boastful shouts of Deutschland uber alles and Heil Hitler.

The regional Nazi leader happened to glance out one of the City Hall windows. He noticed smoke rising from the chimney over the mikveh. He immediately and angrily called out to his deputy, “Look what the Jews are doing!”

The deputy, who had not stopped drinking for a moment, became enraged: “Zum toivl [to the devil]. This is no other than the Jewish mikveh!”

“We need to do something with those dirty Jews,” declared one of the officers. They have to know that they are under German rule now!”

Early that afternoon, as the shochtim were finishing their task and the mikveh was especially busy, a large contingent of German soldiers, rifles and machine guns in hand, surrounded the mikveh and the slaughterhouse and cordoned off the square that stretched between the two so that no one could get in or out.

They entered the mikveh, driving everyone out and ordering them into row formation in the square. Next, the Jews in the slaughterhouse were ordered into the square. The refugee Reb Naftoli Melech, sefer Torah in his hands, was in the trapped group and stood in the first row.

Suddenly a group of German officers arrived, swastikas on their arms, revolvers in hand. “Hende hoch!” – hands up! – came the sharp command.

The fear-stricken Jews raised their hands – with the exception of old Reb Naftoli, who did not know what to do with the sefer Torah in his arms. German eyes focused on the old man with the long gray beard and payes who dared disobey a German order.

But Reb Naftoli just hugged the Torah that much tighter. Within seconds, however, he had an idea. He quickly snatched his holiday gartel, a white silk cord, out of his pocket and tied it tightly several times around his body and the sefer Torah. The scroll secure, he raised his hands.

Poisonous smiles crossed the Germans’ faces as they noted the old man’s accomplishment. In the meantime, local Poles had begun gathering in the periphery of the square to watch and enjoy the ugly play of the Germans with the Jews.

“Good for them!” was a common refrain. “It’s coming to those zhids!” was another.

* * *

Preparations for the approaching Yom Tov continue in the Jewish homes of Melitz. No one has the faintest idea of what is about to unfold in the square. True, by this hour on erev Rosh Hashanah Reb Yoshe the shochet would normally be home. His wife and daughters, busy in the kitchen, attribute the delay to the many chickens brought to him that day

Reb Yoshe’s son-in-law, Aron Weinrib, who had narrowly escaped the clutches of the advancing Wehrmacht in Tarnov, is the first to react with disquiet and concern. It is, after all erev Yom Tov. By now Reb Yoshe should be here. Where is he?

Aron keeps looking impatiently at the advancing clock, then at the door. Finally, he decides to walk over to the slaughterhouse. As soon as he reaches the square, however, he is stopped by a German soldier and placed in line with the rest of the Jews, hands up.

The bewildered Jews stand there with hands raised for what seems an interminably long time. Then one of the German officers steps forward and, brandishing his revolver at the Jews, shouts, “Empty your pockets! Right away!”

With trembling hands the Jews begin removing handkerchiefs, cigarette lighters, schnupftabak (snuff) boxes, gartlech, and other articles from their pockets.

Reb Naftoli Melech, his sefer Torah tied to him, comes upon his shofar in his pocket. He hesitates. Hand it over – yes, or no? Quickly he decides not to part with it. Tomorrow this shofar is meant to summon God’s salvation for His people. How can he expose it now to the eyes of the arrogant and faithless? No, he will not allow the holy instrument to be desecrated by the smirking German soldiers.

Reb Chayim, the town’s other shochet, has a similar dilemma. Shall he relinquish the ritual knife – the chalef – or hold on to it? He feels as though the Germans are all focusing on him. If he doesn’t hand over the knife, all the Jews in the square might be punished. Reluctantly, he removes the knife from his pocket. It falls with a clank to the ground.

Like an infuriated wild beast, the lead German officer throws himself at the knife and, brandishing it in the air, shrieks: “I will slaughter you like calves! I will shoot you like dogs! Dirty Jewish vermin!” And then he shouts to his soldiers: “Arms, ready!”

The click of steel. The ring of metal. No other sound in the air. Inaudible but visible tremors race through the ranks of the terrified Jews as they stare into the barrels of hungry rifles and machine guns.

On the periphery, the mob of local Poles grows thicker, as does their sense of excited anticipation. It seems many are rubbing their hands in delirious satisfaction. The only sound they make is an occasional triumphant shout: Smiert zsidom! – death to the Jews! – in Polish; Alle dershiesen! – shoot them all! – in German.

Pale, scared, hands high, Aron Weinrib, Reb Yoshe the shochet‘s son-in-law, takes a step forward from the ranks. He turns to the German commandant.

“Herr Hauptman, these people are innocent! They did not do anyone any harm!”

He wants to continue, but the officer cuts him off:

“Jawohl, jawohl! We know you already, dirty Jews!”

And then, louder, a command: “Three steps forward!”

Aron turns even paler and takes a few groping steps forward. The explosion of a revolver pierces the air. Blood running down his face, Aron falls to the ground, mortally wounded.

A pained, wailing moan rises from the Jewish ranks. Cold sweat covers everyone. A numb ache settles in their bones. A whisp of the Vidui prayer somehow carries among the rows. A quiet, desperate murmur: Min hametzar karati… – Out of the depths do I call You, O God! Aneini – answer! Please. Answer now. Can’t You see how badly we need You? Aneini!

But only one reply is forthcoming. In a brutal voice, loud and terrorizing, comes the order: Juden vagabundn! – Jews on the run! Into the slaughterhouse.

Dozens of German machine guns begin pressing against the Jews, hitting them on their heads. Bayonets are applied, driving the captives toward the doors, creating a stampede accompanied by animal-like shouts on the part of the murderers, drunk already on the taste of Jewish blood.

The victims race toward the slaughterhouse. Perhaps behind its walls God will be ready to offer protection to His people. Perhaps there He will produce a miracle and save them from the insanity of the Germans and the maniacal lust of the Polish onlookers.

The square is emptied of Jews; the articles from their empty pockets lie scattered. The German soldiers surround the slaughterhouse, guns ready to be used through the open doors and windows.

Old Reb Naftoli Melech suddenly remembers the precious shofar secreted in his pocket. He quickly unties the sefer Torah and, scroll in one hand and shofar in the other, calls out to the confused and bludgeoned Jews: Yidn! Lomir nisht shweign! – Jews, let us not be silent! Let us pray to God! He will surely help!

Ashrei ha’ish asher lo halach be’atzat reshaim – Blessed be the man who does not walk in the council of the wicked .

But before the Jews finish the stanza from Tehillim, they hear the cry Fire! – followed by a salvo of machine guns, rifles and revolvers. Those Jews standing closest to the doors and windows buckle like felled trees, blood streaming from open wounds.

From an unfathomable source, from a thousand throats, comes the outcry: SHEMA YISROEL! Hands are raised to heaven from all sides in the fervent prayer of shattered hearts:

SHEMA KOLENU. GOTT. HOB RACHMONES!

The sound of the shofar fills the room – fills every space and crevice – as Reb Naftoli desperately tries to split the heavens open, to reach the Divine Throne on this erev Rosh Hashanah.

As if the German soldiers are taken aback by the sound of the shofar, the cries of despair, the calls of Shema Yisroel, the shooting ceases for a short while. Or perhaps it is the first time these particular soldiers have shot innocent and defenseless human beings and their consciences are stirring.

For an eternal moment all that seems audible within the walls of the slaughterhouse are the tearful wails of Eliezer Gross’s grandchildren, who, even as they breathe their last, not knowing why their innocent souls must so suddenly and tragically take leave of this sin-drenched world, call out for their mother.

“Mame, oy. Mame!”

Once again, through the doors and windows, comes a salvo of gunfire. Old Reb Naftoli is somehow still standing, sefer Torah in hand, shofar glued to his lips, blood dripping over his pale face and long white beard, glazed eyes turned heavenward in his last prayer.

Finally, no one is left standing. The only sounds are the moans of the wounded and dying. And still Satan cannot rest. The Germans and their cohorts pour gasoline over the walls of the building and set it afire, burning the dead and the wounded.

Thus does Rosh Hashanah 1939 dawn upon the holy congregation of Melitz.

A fire offering unto the Lord – Who will surely avenge the blood of His servants.

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Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel. He has taught at City University of New York, Haifa University, and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and, at the request of David Ben-Gurion, founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.