I Wish It Were Fiction
Holocaust Memories 1939 - 1945
My Hometown Apt (Opatow)
Empty and devastated, there are no more Jews in the town. And Apt itself does not exist. Not a single Jew lives there. And there is nothing left of the community that existed and flourished there for centuries. A whole community was completely wiped out when it fell victim to the horrors of Nazism. Young Jewish men and women no longer parade on the wide or narrow streets of Apt. Jews no longer congregate on the Jordan Circle.
Once upon a time there was a town named Apt (Opatow), and it was full of Jews. It is no more. How does it look now, without Jews? When the angry storm – the Nazi beast – came, the Jews were swept away without a trace.
Seldom does one have the opportunity to see the Poland of the past the way I saw it in Apt in 1992. It is true that everyone heard about the catastrophe. Practically everyone knows what happened. Almost every Apt survivor experienced it. Nevertheless, ones heart begins to beat faster and terrible despair engulfs you, when you stand there alone amongst the narrow Jewish streets, or at the former market square. You have the feeling you are at a forlorn and unknown place; looking at abandoned, neglected or destroyed schools or synagogues; opposite former Zionist or orthodox clubs; across from formerly wealthy Jewish homes, and other former Jewish organizational quarters. You begin to fully realize the heart breaking fact that nothing really remained. No indication of any kind that Jewish life flourished here; that Jews lived here for hundreds of years, making great contributions to Poland’s growth and development, in every sphere of human endeavor.
I was shocked and depressed in those days when I wandered amongst the streets without Jews, in present day Apt. The thought didn’t even occur to me then, that I would ever again visit Apt. But fate decreed that I should once again return.
Once again I walked over the streets paved with cobblestone. As soon as I stepped down from the bus, I felt that I was as the folk saying goes, “A single soul in Moscow,” – the only living Jew in Apt.
It’s quite possible that it was an instinctive desire to see the town again and relive all the horrible moments that made me parade, numerous times, over the streets of Apt.
It is not the murderer, but the victim, who is drawn to the scene where he was tortured. It is difficult to agree with those who maintain that our great catastrophe is horrible enough without any further agony. When one travels in the cities and towns where Jewish communities thrived, one learns of new facts, unknown until this day, of the horrors visited upon our brothers and sisters by the Hitler bandits. So many cases of heroism have yet to be told about; so much martyrism! It is a warning to all of us, never forget what the German Amalek did to our Jewish people.
The Jewish past in Apt is like a dream against a background of a thousand year-old Jewish life in eastern Europe. This does not change the tragic reality, that in a town like Apt, that was almost totally Jewish, where 8,000 Jews lived before the final liquidation, Jews are no more than a legend of the vanished past. Apt, the city of great rabbinic personalities and creative Jewish men and women, is at present completely Judnrein. And so it will remain – in my opinion – forever. Never again will Apt be among the towns that can boast of its reputation as a tolerant, generous place to live. There is not a Jew in present day Poland whose experiences are not full of dramatic moments that can be recreated in a movie scene. I met many such people during the few days of my stay in Poland. So much tragedy is contained in the stories of the people with whom I had the opportunity to speak. So much Jewish suffering simply for the sin of having been born a Jew. The story of their experiences deserves to be recorded for posterity, so that future generations will learn the lesson: Never forget nor forgive. Many years will pass, the environment will change, governments will change, regimes will disappear, but the horrible story of the destruction of 6,000,000 Jews will never be forgotten or erased.
The Jewish past in Apt is no more than a dream. But what is real is the destruction of a thousand year-old Jewish existence. I will never forget what I saw there. Every street, every road I walked, evoked the most painful memories. I saw Zatilna street, where the brush factory workers lived. I remember the horrible pain in my heart, when one day after the forced evacuation of the Apt Jews (a day in which I managed to hide) I saw with my own eyes the sadistic policeman, Bill, shoot two infants. Their mother, before the evacuation of the children, prepared the milk from her breast. All kinds of memories haunt me. I remember Rose Feld’s tavern on Szeroka street. The owner, who wore a white coat, stood there with a satisfied look on his face. He seemed to know about Jewish food. In the window of his tavern there was a large sign announcing, “Jewish Delicacies” (Zydowskie Potrawy)
The sad emotions engulf me, street after street: Szeroka, Starowolowa, Lwanska, Rynek, the same market with a small garden in the centre. Here one could see the tall wooden fence which was the so called “Ghetto wall.” On the other side of the border was the “hunt territory,” for the local police bandit Helcel.
There is not much of interest to write about in present day Apt. The whole economy is based on the market, the same as years ago. Apt has not changed much externally. The same primitive roofs cover the small huts and houses; the same Goldman’s mill on Ostrowiecka street; the same tall church steeples tower above all the buildings in town. Everything looks so monotonous and peaceful that one could almost lie down in the street, fall asleep and be confident that he would not be disturbed by anyone.
The only sign of modern progress is the excellent paved road that cuts through the centre of town and continues on the way to Kazhymierz (Tsosmez). This elegant road was built by the German firm Omler, which exploited bitter Jewish slave workers. These workers were promised, in a characteristically perfidious German way, that their families would be saved from deportation to the death camps — a promise that was cynically broken. The road is drenched with the blood of young Jewish workers, shot by the civilian German supervisor: another chapter of German inhumanity.
Another gruesome tragedy that could only be dramatically described by a great writer or poet, took place in Szmuel Grinstein’s house on the wide street. There, in the wide cellars, 40 Jewish men, women and children erected a thick wall behind which they hid, hoping to survive. It is difficult to describe the horrible conditions under which these people lived, deprived of fresh air, without any contact with the outside world. But they were sustained by their hope. Tragically, a few days later, the hiding place was discovered and all 40 Apt men, women and children were shot.
The same fate befell a large group of Jews with small children, who hid in a bunker on the narrow street. They were all wiped out.
Much more depressed than the rest of the city is the Jewish street. Almost all the houses were not simply demolished, they were taken down to their foundations. So great was the urge of the Polish neighbours to inherit what they thought were Jewish fortunes allegedly buried in the ground or hidden inside the walls. This is how the Jewish street appears now. It looks like a hurricane passed through and reduced everything to dust.
Desolate and neglected stand the buildings that housed the former Beth-Hamedrosh and the synagogue, almost hugging each other — a symbol of a vibrant Jewish community that was here before, but suffered painfully under German occupation. The community was subjected to forced contributions, blackmail, deportation, confinement in a ghetto and finally annihilation.
I will never forget the 11th day of the month Cheshvan in 1942, and the days following. These were the darkest days of the macabre deportations of the Jews of Apt. The road from Targvisk street, where all the Jews were assembled and marched for 15 kilometers to the train station. This was their last march to death. The S.S. Bandits kept on beating the victims with long sticks, and kept on yelling: “Hurry, hurry.” They were assisted by Lithuanian and Ukrainian fascist bandits, with their bayonets, and encouraged by the shouting of local robbers, who were impatiently waiting to get their hands on Jewish property. Our tortured brothers and sisters were being shipped off to Belzec, Majdanek or Treblinka. Hundreds perished in the wagons of the freight trains, to which they were confined for days on the road to death.
I constantly see before my eyes the painful scenes of our town’s bitter end. I walk aimlessly on the territory of the great market on the wide street. I am grieved by the scenes of Jewish martyrdom, of the final Holocaust.
Here I see the house of Chaskel Luzer, further down, Shama Steinman’s house and the Lilienbaum home. The last 60 young Jews — myself included — lived in these houses. We were called the cleaning brigade. The Nazis left us alive for a double purpose. First, to collect and sort out all the goods that were left by the deported Jews. And second, to collect the half naked bodies of the murdered, scattered all over, and bury them. Local amateur hooligans were always there, anxious to rob the clothes of the dead.
I walk around on the big marketplace across the wide and narrow streets, up to Zatilna street. Once again before my eyes rise scenes of Jewish martyrdom and heroism.
The Sholem Aleichem street has vanished; so has the upper district known as the Jordan. One can see no radical changes on the so called Jewish streets, with the only exception being that the Jewish cemetery on the hill has been transformed into a rose garden. Not a trace remains of the former cemetery, where great Jewish personalities were buried, nor of the historic gravestones and monuments. A few abandoned, neglected gravestones stand there in a corner — a tragic symbol of the vanished Jewish Apt. There wasn’t even a trace of the great rabbis and teachers who lived in Apt.
The larger Jewish communities of Poland and eastern Europe will probably still be remembered by survivors. But who will commemorate the smaller towns and villages, like Apt, with its vibrant, pulsating and multi-coloured Jewish life – a source of the treasured Jewish past? Apt (Opatow): This is the name of my birthplace.
For my part, I hope that when I stand before my creator… and the 6,000,000 will ask me: “What have you done?” I hope I will be able to answer: “I haven’t forgotten you!”
Weakened, I turn toward the second street, where the final act of the ghetto drama was played out. The neglected building of the Judenrat is still standing, but its doors are shut tight. I leave Apt, that does not matter to me any longer.
Everything that was near and dear to us exists no longer. But it will live forever in our hearts and souls.
"Once upon a time there was a town named Apt"