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A World Interrupted

April 6, 2010 | by Rabbi Simcha Shafran

A 14-year-old boy's terrifying first days of World War II.

Rabbi Simcha Shafran, whose memoir "Fire, Ice, Air" was recently published, spent most of the years of World War II in Siberia, where he was banished along with a small group of fellow yeshiva boys and their teacher, Rabbi Leib Nekritz, of blessed memory. The following is excerpted from Rabbi Shafran's book, and recounts events that took place in Poland shortly after the Nazi invasion of that country. I was supposed to travel to Bialystok in the fall of 1939, to attend the higher-level Novardhok Yeshiva there, and I had returned home to see my parents before going off to that place of higher Jewish learning. On September 1, 1939, however, my plans, like so many people’s, were interrupted by the Second World War. The Nazis invaded Poland and we were told to expect bombing. I remember how, that Friday afternoon, people taped over their windows so that any glass that broke wouldn’t shatter and hit those inside the houses. We listened to a radio until the Sabbath arrived.

Early the next morning, a neighbor knocked loudly on the door and told us breathlessly that the Germans had crossed the border and were not far from our town, and that we had to run away. The assumption was that Polish forces would soon destroy the bridge over the Narev, to prevent the Germans from advancing so quickly. If we were to stay ahead of the Germans ourselves, we had to cross the bridge first.

So, although travel outside of a city or town is not usually permitted on the Sabbath, the rabbi of the town rendered his decision that we were all in mortal danger and that it was thus not just permitted but required of us to flee.

As we lived near the river, we walked along its banks toward the bridge. We were told that in the event that a German airplane might drop a gas bomb on us we should run to the river, wet cloths and put them over our mouths and noses. At one point a plane did appear overhead. There was some panic but nothing fell from the sky.

Throngs of people were already at the bridge when we arrived there, but we all managed to cross over to the other side. We walked to Govrov, a nearby town with a Jewish community.

Soon enough we found ourselves surrounded by German soldiers.

My parents, and all the new refugees, were frightened, with no idea what the future would bring. We were taken in by the locals in Govrov and remained there until the next Thursday. That was when we heard cannon fire from the direction from which we had come. Although Polish soldiers had remained on the Ruzhan side of the bridge, it was clear that they had not successfully stymied the Germans, and that the Nazis were advancing.

That night, several families, ours among them, set off again, and walked through the night. I took my tefillin, which were in a bag that closed with a drawstring, and hung them on my belt, to make sure that, whatever happened to me, they would be there.

We walked through fields, rather than on the roads, so that we would not be discovered. But we were; soon enough we found ourselves surrounded by German soldiers.

Although we were clearly Jews, the soldiers, perhaps relieved by the ease of their invasion, acted in a friendly manner, and even offered us a colt that had just been born to one of their mares.

There was no point in trying to travel further. It was clear that the Germans had easily occupied the entire area, and the soldiers did not seem interested in harming us. So we headed back to Govrov. We were hungry and thirsty, and on the way we drew and drank water from a muddy well – using rags and handkerchiefs to strain the water somewhat. There is a Yiddish blessing that wishes that “you not be tested by something one can get used to.” It means to say that a person, if he is forced to, can get used to almost anything. Who among us ever before imagined drinking muddy water?

We arrived back in Govrov late Friday afternoon.

Any sense of security we may have felt, though, was shattered soon enough. My family and I were lying on the floor of a local Jew’s house when we heard angry banging on the door and the gruff, loud words “Raus Jude! Raus Jude!” – “Jew, out!”

These visitors were not simple German soldiers, but member of the SS, the Schutzstaffel – the Nazi military organization that operated separately from the regular German army. SS members swore allegiance to Hitler, and they hated Jews.

The SS men chased us from the houses, prodding us with bayonets.

The SS men chased us from the houses, prodding us with bayonets to raise our hands and join the town’s other Jews – several hundred people – in the middle of the town’s market area. As we walked, hands raised, the Nazis photographed us.

Some of the Germans approached the men among us who had beards and cut them off, either entirely or purposely leaving an odd angle of beard, just to humiliate the victims. One man had a beautiful, long beard. When he saw what the Germans were doing, he took a towel he had with him and tied it around his beard, in the hope that our tormentors might not see so enticing a target. But of course, they went right over to him, removed the towel and shaved off what to him and us was a physical symbol of experience, wisdom and holiness. He wept uncontrollably.

We stood there and the smell of smoke in our nostrils became more intense with each minute. It didn’t take long to realize that the town’s homes had been set aflame. Later we heard that a German soldier had been discovered killed nearby and that the SS men had assumed that the culprits were Jews.

Eventually the non-Jews were permitted to go out into the countryside, along with their cows and goats. We Jews were ordered into the synagogue.

My mother’s sister’s husband, Chaim Gelchinsky, seized the opportunity to try to escape by joining the group of non-Jews. But one of them pointed him out to an SS man and said, simply, “Jew.” Without a second’s hesitation, the German raised his pistol and shot my uncle dead. Several other Jews were killed at that time as well.

In the synagogue, we sat terrified. Some of the people had been wounded. One elderly woman had a gaping bullet wound in her stomach. To this day I have never been able to wipe that image from my memory.

The doors were locked and SS men stood outside to ensure that no one managed to escape – in order to roast us alive.

A German entered and began to remove young people, saying that they were being conscripted to work. When they came to my brother Fischel, my parents begged them to leave him with us. Fischel’s hand was slightly deformed and they pointed it out to the Germans, who then left him alone.

It wasn’t long, though, before my parents were wailing in regret for that ploy. It had become clear that all of us remaining in the synagogue were being confined there – the doors were locked and SS men stood outside to ensure that no one managed to escape – in order to roast us alive. The town had been set afire, and the Nazis clearly intended to let the flames reach the synagogue. Houses nearby were already wildly burning. “Why hadn’t we let Fischel go?” my parents cried bitterly. “At least he could have escaped this fate!”

The scene was a blizzard of shouting and wailing and, above all, praying. Psalms and lamentations and entreaties blended together, a cacophony of wrenched hearts. Everyone realized what was in store and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that any of us could possibly do.

Elijah's Strangest Costume

The smell of smoke grew even stronger, as did the cries of the hundreds of Jews packed in the synagogue awaiting a terrible death. And then a miracle occurred.

How else to explain what happened? Those in the synagogue who were standing near the doorway and windows saw a German motorcycle come to a halt in front of the building. A German officer – apparently of high rank – dismounted from the machine and began to speak with the SS men guarding our intended crematorium. The officer grew agitated and barked some orders at the other Nazis. After a few minutes, the doors to the synagogue were suddenly opened and, in disbelief at our good fortune, we all staggered out.

The officer, apparently, had heard the terrible din from within the building and had stopped to see what was happening. Presumably the SS men told him that the Jews had killed one of their men. What made the officer order them to release us we did not know and never will. Some of us suspected he was not a German at all, but Elijah the prophet, who, in Jewish tradition, often appears in disguise.

We were ordered across a nearby brook and some of the soldiers even carried elderly people who could not easily cross through the shallow water on their own. We were told to sit on the grass and to go no further. And so there we sat, all through the Sabbath, watching as the synagogue in which we had been imprisoned mere hours earlier was claimed by the flames and, along with all the Torah-scrolls and holy books of both Ruzhan and Govrov, burned to the ground. During the night that followed, some men ventured forth to bury the dead of previous days, my uncle among them. In Judaism, a body is not to be left unburied for long if there is any way of returning it to the earth.

That night was the first night of Selichos, the special entreaties for forgiveness of sins that are recited before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

The gift was a goodbye present; nothing else was left of the town.

It was cold, with autumn unmistakably in the air, and we, the live Jews, huddled together through the night, shivering from both the chill and the unknown.

When morning came, though, there was not a soldier to be seen. All the Nazis had left. We went back into the town. There we found a bizarre blessing amid the destruction: Several pear trees, laden with fruit, stood like sad, silent witnesses to all that had happened to the town. The fruit on the branches had been baked by the flames. We picked and ate the pears, a delicious, unexpected delicacy – a dessert unattached to any meal. But the gift was a goodbye present; nothing else was left of the town. And so we moved on.

"Fire, Ice, Air" is available at select Jewish bookstores. If your local bookstore doesn't have it in stock, please ask the proprietor to contact to place an order.

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