Bringing a forgotten book about a murdered community to life

Bringing a forgotten book about a murdered community to life

A journey through the ruined streets of Bialystok

At dusk, all four of us were handcuffed and dragged out of our basement dungeon. We were ordered by our guards onto a truck already containing 10 Belarus peasants, who were alleged partisans. The truck started moving down Suraska Street towards the open plaza. I was certain this journey would be my last.

Rafael Rajzner, whose 1948 book has finally been translated into English.

The streets were still and empty. Dead like a cemetery! There was no Jew to be seen, only destruction, as far as the eye could see. My thoughts drifted back in time. I thought of streets teeming with Jewish life. I thought about happy little Jewish children, a comfort to their parents, standing on corners, playing in yards, singing Jewish songs. They were our future – future students and professionals – future workers, builders, and merchants. Our Jews were hard-working, honest and diligent! They made homes, grew families, built businesses, created workplaces. I remembered the workers – the locksmiths, the carpenters, the shoemakers, the tinsmiths, the hairdressers, the weavers, the lady cloth inspectors, the shopkeepers. I remembered the thinkers – the religious ones, the Hebrew scholars, the Yiddishists, the graduates, the free thinkers, the dreamers, the crusaders, the right-wingers, the left-wingers. I warmed inwardly as I thought about the players who loved to entertain us – the actors, the singers, the sports people. Together they made a nation – the living organism of a practical, experienced, and sophisticated people.

I remembered how I always used to watch them, all the time – daytime, nighttime, weekdays, Sabbaths, holidays, Holy Days. I watched them all bustling – the happy and the dejected, the toiling and the weary, the wealthy ones and the domestics, the chasidim and the mitnagdim, the men and the women, the young and the old. They would rush to and disappear into prayer houses – the Great Synagogue, the smaller chasidic synagogues, the houses of study, the minyans. I was reminded how, in these ravaged houses on these empty streets, our dear mothers and grandmothers celebrated the Sabbath and the Holy Days. At these times homes were spotless and fragrant. Tables were beautifully prepared. Lit candles cast a divine glow.

I was in a trance, a daydream. My eyes were looking for those wondrously honest Jews from the Piaskower Synagogue: Reb Simon Zelig Charnowski, Reb Samuel Elkes, Rabbi Eckstein, Reb Israel Meir Rubinstein, Reb Mordechai Levinson, Reb Isaac Jajchmenik, Reb Zelig Tartatzki, and the Makowski and Najdus brothers, to mention just a few. Then suddenly I returned back to the present. I had been looking for them, but of course they were gone. They were dead and gone. The city was a cemetery. The prayer says “Hear O Israel,” but there was no Israel. Everywhere was void. Everyone was dead.

The Nazi criminal from Belarus next to me in the truck interrupted my train of thought. He fired a series of anti-Semitic questions at me. “Jew, why did you hide for such a long time? Jew, why do you all like to hide gold? Jew, why are you all Bolsheviks?” I failed to reply, so he thumped my head and shoulders with his rifle butt. These wounds troubled me for nearly two months.

The truck stopped. I found myself in a yard surrounded by a high-walled fence. The Nazi criminals spoke to each other. From their conversation I made out we had arrived at our destination, the inside of the Bialystok Prison. A spark of hope reignited itself. Perhaps we won’t be shot just yet? I felt happier for a moment.

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