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Sefer Vladimirets

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In Those Days

From: Sefer Vladimirets, 1963

Author: Yitzchak Brat

** Webmaster Note: The following is a translation from Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov as sponsored by George Zilbergeld. Additional clarifications are provided in parenthesis ( ).

IN THOSE DAYS

It is the end of June, 1941.  It already is a week since the Nazi fire in the territories of what had been Poland has ignited and spread.  And now, it is reaching Western Ukraine and White Russia.  Nazi airplanes fly overhead without worry, flying back and forth, sowing loss and death.  The bombardments are coming closer; they already can be heard at a distance. Death is marching over the destroyed towns and cities, over the bodies of the killed, and coming closer to us.

Night.  Darkness wraps the town, but at a distance, you see the corners of the skies lit by a large fire.  This is the burning of cities and towns, properties of generations, ending in smoke.

I decided to leave Vladimirets and go out on the road.  My backpack was already packed.  Early tomorrow, I am leaving the town.

Fear stalks the town.  Those who know, are saying that somewhere they are already setting up gallows … the goyim are sharpening their axes and sickles.  I am trying to speak sensibly with the owner of my apartment…

"Leizer, perhaps we will travel together?  Take Batsheva and the boy, and we will flee.  Here, the German will slaughter us.  He will blame us for cooperating with the Communists.  Come, we will flee and save our lives."

Leizer stretched out on the narrow couch that was upholstered with green oilcloth and answered me, saying:

"If death was decreed for me, I want to die here, on this couch.  Why should I drag my bones to the ends of the earth?  In order to be swollen with hunger and die there?  I will not move from my place." 

The next day – early in the morning of June 29, I walked to my office.  In the yard of the building, a deep pit had been dug, and into it the clerks had thrown all of the documents and certificates that had to be destroyed.  Afterwards, they set the pile on fire.  Heavy, thick smoke came up from the pit and spread all around.

When the work was finished, I told the wagoner to prepare a horse and wagon and give places to other people who wanted to leave the town.  I myself went home, in order to say goodbye to Leizer and his family before I left the town forever. 

It was a pleasant summer day.  The red stone houses on both sides of the main street were bathed in the rays of the sun.  The window panes shone with light, as if they were on fire.  Somber, downcast and confused Jews stood on the sidewalks in front of the houses.  Many of the youths, loaded with bundles on their shoulders, were already leaving the town, heading toward Antonovka-Sarny.

In front of the house of the Tscherniak family – notables of our town – stood a group of people.

"What should we do?" they asked each other.

"I put my trust in G-d," said Tscherniak, the father.  "What G-d will want, is what will happen and what will be.  'If G-d will not protect a city – its guards are watching over it in vain.'" [Psalms 127:1] He added the quotation to strengthen his opinion. 

Another Jew added, with a sigh, "The water rose so high as to drown us.  The water is about to drown us, and from where will our help come? [paraphrases of verses in Psalms 79:2 and 121:1] – a heavy cloud covers our heavens."

"Jews are commanded to have faith," a third Jew entered the conversation.  "If we are destined to live, we will be rescued even from Hitler, may his name be blotted out.  And if, G-d forbid, it is destined that our end will come, what will it help for us to flee to find shelter?  It is better for me to die here in Vladimirets, and I will lie in the same cemetery with my forefathers."

I continue walking, and I see around me the confused faces of the Jews of our town.  I want them to be engraved in my memory.  Who knows if I will ever see them again? … Who knows if I will come back to walk again on this ground?

On my way, I met the Rabbi of our town – Rav Shlomo Yaakov Shlita. 

"Where are you hurrying to?" asked the Rav, and his eyes were wise and clear, as always.  His soft black hat was pulled down on his high forehead, and a cigarette was in his mouth. 

"I decided to leave here, Rabbi.  The horse and wagon are already harnessed.  I can take more Jews with me."

He examined me with a sharp look, took a draw on the cigarette and blew rings of smoke.

"My advice is not to flee," he said quietly.  "To whom, and where, will you run?  To the Communists?  You already know them and how good they are.  Stay here.  Whom did you harm here, and who is wicked?  I know the Germans from World War I.  Were they violent and did they murder then?  Perhaps in the beginning they will be a bit boisterous.  But mass murder, in that I don't believe.  Stay here.  G-d will not desert us," he ended.

"No, Rabbi, it is forbidden for me to stay here," I answered, and said, "in the days of the Soviets, I had a high position.  They will certainly suspect that I am a Communist – and that can be a calamity for me.  We have worked together in public affairs for many years.  I always appreciated your wise advice, and almost always followed it, but this time, forgive me, honored Rabbi, but I cannot listen to you.  I must flee from here.  I think that whoever has the strength to escape with his life must do so.  When the storm passes, we will come back here."

"And what is new with you, in your home in Rafalovka?" he continued to ask me.  "Are you going there first?" 

"No, I am not travelling to Rafalovka – there are rumors that there are already gangs of Ukrainians in the forests, and travelling in the forest is extremely dangerous.  I am leaving a letter to be given to my parents there. I am heading for Sarny, and from there to Kiev.  I have a special permit from the Ministry of Finance of the Ukrainian Republic." 

"If that is your decision, I bless you, that you will travel in peace and that G‑d will help you wherever you go."   He held out his soft, delicate hand.  Trembling, I shook his hand, and tears arose in my eyes.

"And you, who remain here – may G-d protect you," I said, in a choked voice.

Here, I am entering my apartment.  From the salon, I hear grievous crying.  I open the door and see Leizer lying on the couch as he had been before, and his wife Batsheva sitting next to the radio and listening to the news, crying bitterly.

"I will take my children and flee from here.  I know that they will slaughter all of us here.  Leizer!  Go and think what you are doing to us … the hour of opportunity is in your hands … come, and we will flee from here … the ground is burning under our feet."

 But Leizer didn't move.

And they remained in the town forever … I did not see them again … also the members of my family – my parents, my brothers and sisters, I did not see them again … together with all of the Jews of Vladimirets, they were brought to slaughter in the middle of the month of Elul, at the edge of the forest.  They were shot to death next to the open pits.

Not one of them remained alive.  The ruins that were in the town were removed, and the houses were repaired.  But the Jews, the inhabitants of those houses, are no more.    I no longer found the noble faces of our fathers in the town … I saw the murderers walking through the streets of Vladimirets – the holy congregation.  Murderous and dark, crude faces.

The Jews of Vladimirets were murdered, and they are no more.

But all of them live in my memory.  I see them as they were, and they are walking through the streets, standing at the entrances of their shops, working in their workshops, praying in the synagogues and occupied with the needs of the community.  I see our mothers blessing the candles on Sabbath and holiday eves, and brides on their way to the chupah [wedding canopy]. 

They stand before my eyes as if they were alive, my brothers, the sons of my town, my dear town, Vladimirets.


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