Most children of Holocaust survivors had no understanding of what their parents lived through. After enduring atrocities beyond human comprehension, they were catapulted into a world completely alien. Older survivors who had lost families had to find the strength to forge on and rebuild. Many found it difficult to understand the needs of their new set of children growing up in an utterly different world. These children, in turn, could not comprehend their parents’ feelings, foreign ideas and previous way of life.
When Zeidie — Reb Zyshe Slutzky — was alive, we knew he had written about his experiences during the war, though we never asked to read them. Now, we realize, its time has come.
Although only a tiny glimpse of Zeidie’s history, it is a precious treasure. We must appreciate these words, written through great pain yet with unshakable bitachon and emunah.
The Slutzky family was respected and revered in the shtetl of Dzizov. Zeidie was a shochet, and he and his father had a meat business and sold grain to the army. That’s how Zeidie made contacts that saved him during the Holocasut.
During World War I, Zeidie claimed he was much younger than he was to avoid being drafted. When he attempted to present himself as considerably older than his real age at the onset of World War II, he was informed that he couldn’t play the age trick both ways and was drafted into the Polish army.
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Poland lost the war in nine days. Zeidie seized this opportunity and deserted, running to Vilna.
Zeidie knew that if he was discovered by the Polish army or the police, he could be incarcerated as a deserter and hanged. In Vilna, he met someone who looked like a Rav and related his story. He asked to be directed to a place where he could eat and rest. He also desperately needed civilian clothing.
Zeidie had no idea that he was speaking to Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, zt”l, who took Zeidie home and gave him his own pants. Then the venerable sage brought Zeidie to a building where he would receive lodging. After staying in Vilna for approximately three months, he decided to travel home to his family.
He found everyone crammed into a ghetto, living in terrible conditions.
The following is based on a translation of Zeidie’s papers:
The Germans decided to liquidate the entire Jewish population of the region, a plan they pulled off with the help of local Polish ruffians.
Those fiends killed my family. They dragged out my wife who had just given birth, and our four children — including a baby just three days old — and my sickly mother, to be slaughtered. The Germans had known about them and chose to turn a blind eye. But the Poles obliterated them.*
My children spotted me from afar and cried out to me, “Tatenyu, Tatenyu, men firt unz shoin shissen!” (They’re taking us to be shot.) The thugs bashed their heads with the most horrible cruelty, using the barrels of their guns, and decimated them.
And I was left with the dubious pleasure of living …
[* Note: This was 28 Av, 5702. That day, the Germans slaughtered all women, children, and weak men — those who no longer had the capacity to work. This is recounted in the book “Yizkor Shel Ha’ir Dzizov” published in 5724. It seems Zeidie managed to conceal his family from the Germans, but some Poles found them and murdered them.]
In November 1942, the Germans began to liquidate the forced labor workshops. We learned out that 250 cattle cars had been prepared for us. Slowly, the rumor swept through the camp — we were being transported to Treblinka.
Many started running. There were no large forests in the area, nor were there partisan groups to join. Moreover, we had heard that the Yidden who tried to run met up with Russian deserters who pillaged and later murdered them.
There was no hope for those who fled.
I felt indifferent. Why should I run? My entire family had been murdered. What difference did it make if I’d die sooner or later? Even if there was some hope for survival, would life be worth living?
Despite these thoughts, at the last minute, when the camp was surrounded by the Gestapo and their Polish henchmen, I was convinced by some other inmates to flee.
I ran away while the relentless question burned in me: Where? To whom could I turn? I began to regret my escape. But then an inner voice called out to me:
Zyshe! … So many times, you walked at the edge of a gaping abyss, and when all seemed lost, at the very last moment, Hashem saved you. Surely another miracle is possible…
I trudged on, listening keenly to the voice and fortifying my broken heart. Yet, almost simultaneously, the horrible memories returned. I heard once more the wails of my little ones. “Tattenyu, men fihrt unz shoin shissen!”
It is impossible for my pen to describe the wrenching torture I endured. The chilling cries of my young children and the ever-present vision of their terrifying death crushed my heart.
Is there a deeper ache in the world than that of a father watching his darling children being murdered before his eyes?
Suddenly, a harsh shout and a hail of bullets roused me from my musings. I fell to the ground and bullets whizzed right by me. Just up ahead loomed the barn of Farmer Nat, a Jew-hater renowned for his evil. I had no choice but to hide there.
I had been in the barn for a short while when I realized that my cover had been blown. I rose and made for the door, but the farmer got there first and tried to bolt it. I managed to wedge my foot in, but the rasha and his wife rammed the door against my foot, yelling, “Stak, get over here!”
I felt a terrible throbbing in my foot as Stak approached. With superhuman effort, I managed to squeeze out.
The farmer grabbed hold of my clothing and shouted, “Stand still!”
Before I had set out on my wandering, I had taken along a knife, the only weapon I could find. I decided to abide by what I had been taught: “When one comes to kill you, kill him first.”
I removed the knife and ran it over Nat’s hand. He began to blubber in fright.
Stak came bounding towards me. Upon seeing my erect, threatening posture, he slowed his pace, while shouting, “Zyshe, is that you?”
Then he yelled at his father, “Why did you get yourself into this? Come, Zyshe. Come into the house and I’ll give you something to eat…”
I eventually ended up in the barn of a farmer who was my best friend during the war, Farmer Zev. I gave him much of my money before the war, and in exchange he took care of me (and many other Jews as well).
One day, Farmer Zev approached me and said, “You know those evil ones, my adopted son Stefan and his wife. They’re threatening to report me to the Germans and take revenge not only on you, but on me…”
He also informed me that when he was in town he saw that many Jews had returned to the ghetto and were going to work. The commissar wanted to be rid of the threat of wanderers who might band together and form an armed camp of those who escaped the liquidation. He had declared publicly that all the escapees could return safely to the ghetto.
All those who had no place returned, despite being aware that it would not last long.
I knew that returning to the lion’s den should be avoided. I decided to go instead to the farmers in whose hands I had entrusted my possessions.
It was an exercise in futility. None of them would help. With no other choice, I returned to the ghetto.
BACK IN THE GHETTO
I crawled through the fields, avoiding the dangerous paths. I crossed through the barbed-wire fence and entered a house.
It was silent. On every bed lay many people crammed together. It was pitch dark, and I realized I would have to wait until daybreak to appraise the situation. I started davening Maariv.
Upon hearing my voice, the people burst out, “Zyshe! How did you come at night? They just shot a boy for walking out to relieve himself. If a door or window opens at night, they shoot. We thought they were going to shoot us all. That’s why we were afraid to utter a word. It’s a miracle that the guards didn’t notice you.” (Miraculously, the moment I had chosen to crawl through the fence, the guards had gone to warm themselves up.)
“When Hashem wants to protect someone, He has ways to do it,” I said.
I met the Zaramber Rav, Rav Moshe Shepokov, Hy”d, and others. I spoke to them for some time, trying to fortify their emunah.
Suddenly, there was a rapping at the door and the commissar and two policemen entered.
“We need five men at once!” he ordered.
His first glance fell on me. The two policemen obviously wanted to take the Zaramber Rav. Two men volunteered to go in his place, although we had no idea where they were taking us.
It turns out that the commissar’s car had broken down, and manpower was needed to tow it. When we returned, everyone breathed more easily, but I knew that I had to flee. I asked someone to help me.
“We’ll take pails and go for water,” I told him. “Near the wells there is a small passage. While you fill up the pails, I will vanish.”
When the opportunity presented itself, with Hashem’s help, I managed to escape.
It was very late by the time I reached Farmer Zev again. It was raining and I was soaked through. The farmer gave me a change of clothing. For eight days, Stephan brought food to the barn and allowed me to wash up in his home in the evening.
Then he stopped coming. After forty-eight hours, hunger was gnawing at me. I decided to confront them. Stephan’s wife shouted, “You’ve been here long enough. Go to someone else!”
I had half a mind to ask why she was banishing me after having gotten so much from me, but I thought better of it. Stephan and his wife were both evil people and they could cause harm to befall other Yidden who used Zev’s barn. I didn’t answer and returned to the barn, understanding that the place was dangerous and I would have to leave.
Then Zev appeared, deeply apprehensive.
“Zyshe! Stephan told all the surrounding farmers that I shelter Jews. Go away for a while until things blow over, and then you can come back again. You are in real danger!”
I didn’t know where to go. I just walked, thinking, Hashem will lead me and what happens will be His will.
In a remote village lived Farmer Shanitzky, who had shown great respect for me in the past. I thought I might be able to hide with him.
Approaching his yard, I spied a pile of branches lying haphazardly. I quickly crawled under them. Hot tears began streaming from my eyes. They were not tears of despair, but tears that came from pouring my heart out to the One Above.
I davened while the tears streamed down without letting up. I felt them fortify me and cleanse my thoughts of every last grain of doubt. I fell into a light slumber, but the thud of a heavy stone jolted me awake. I knew that I had been discovered.
Before me stood an Esav with an expression of bloody rage and bulging, murderous eyes.
I knew the nature of these brutes. They were all power and fearlessness when it came to the execution of shattered, defenseless Jews, but if they felt their own lives were endangered, they became real cowards. When he saw my hardened, determined face, and realized that instead of attempting to flee I was striding towards him menacingly, he began to retreat.
“You just wait,” he called out. “I’ll call the owner. He’ll show you…!”
The farmer had already spotted me and motioned for me to leave and the bully not to harm me.
When the farmer had gone, the murderer said, “You’re lucky that Shanitzky knows you as an honest Jew…”
Once more on the run, I proceeded apprehensively until I reached the village of Badshket, where I entered the house of a poor farmer and asked him if he would keep me for a while.
He gave me food, but would not hide a Jew on his property.
A VISIT TO ‘FRIENDS’
It had been 50 hours since I had last eaten, and I decided to confront Farmer Pikascz, also a good friend with whom I’d left valuables.
Twice he refused to let me in. I decided to force him to give me food.
I went to the door and opened it a crack. There was no turning back now.
Suddenly, I was inside. And what a stormy reception I received!
“Jas!” the old man screamed. “Sock him in the face! The nerve! How dare he come here!”
“Hey!” screeched some women who were sitting around. “Get out!”
Jozef, a sheigitz with a murderous gleam in his eyes, lifted an iron rod; Pyoter was wielding a knife.
Within seconds, my own knife was gleaming. I grabbed hold of Jozef’s shoulder with my other hand and began to shake him violently as I hollered, “You’ll be quartered right here. You will be the first victim…!”
Jozef was shaking. He blubbered, “Zyshe, I was only joking…”
“Pyoter,” I ordered, “get rid of that knife or I’ll perform on you what’s being done to us.” Jozef commanded that he obey, and he did. Pikascz’s mother-in-law attempted to appease me by claiming that the hair-raising confrontation had only been a joke.
“You shameless murderers,” I shouted, “taking advantage of unfortunate souls who have lost everything, whose nearest and dearest have been wiped out, and who have no idea what the morrow will bring! I’m starving to death. I came for a piece of bread and you know very well how much I paid you for that little morsel! Is that how you joke with a person in such circumstances? Threatening to kill him?”
They groveled for forgiveness, gave me bread and tea, and packed up some food.
I left them with a warning. “Remember, if you ever harm any Jew, we’ll know what to do with you.”
The next night, arriving at Farmer Zev’s again, I was led into the silo.
Manjek, Stephan’s younger brother, entered the barn. “Zyshe,” he said, “it’s better if my brother doesn’t know about you. I’ll bring you some food later.”
When they’d left the barn, someone suddenly appeared. After the hoodlum searched the barn for a long time, he seemed to decide to stay in the barn until I left my hiding place. After a while, Farmer Zev’s wife bought some food for me, and I crawled out of my hiding place. I spread out a rug so that I’d be able to find my way back to my hideaway in the darkness.
I told the farmer’s wife that I was being stalked. The compassionate woman, seeing how worn out I was, tried to reassure me that I was safe and if I lay still the intruder would likely abandon his quest. I allowed myself to be convinced.
I heard the footsteps as I reached my spot. The thug wouldn’t give up so fast. He was biding his time, waiting to get me.
I didn’t move. I held my knife ready, determined to stab him the instant he confronted me. He approached menacingly, but the next moment, he passed me without as much as a kick.
The thug bent down when he spied the rug and yelled, “I am going to shoot you like a sheep!” I got ready to lunge for him and kill him, but then I noticed that the barn door was ajar. That called for a reevaluation of tactics. I knew that no Jew would ever be safe in Farmer Zev’s barn again if I killed the man, and it was a haven for exhausted Jews to stop and rejuvenate before resuming their flight. I left and, on my way out, notified Farmer Zev about the unwanted guest in his barn.
The farmer’s sons went to investigate, and the brute began screaming that they were sheltering Jews, and threatening to kill them. Then, not having found what he had come for, he stole some geese and left.
I forged onward.
Suddenly, I heard a harsh “Halt!” I had missed the approach of a wagon occupied by two gendarmes, familiar to me from my days in the ghetto. They immediately recognized me and ordered me to climb into the carriage.
I wondered if this was the end. Would I leave this world without witnessing the downfall of our enemies?
Passion spurred me into action. I rose and surprised one of them with a powerful punch, causing him to fall backwards. Then I jumped off the wagon.
Now what? I ran into Zev’s animal stalls and hid in the refuse.
The gendarmes beat Zev and shot some rounds into the air, but then stopped. They didn’t bother searching for me; they were certain that I had fled.
I hid in the cow dung for three days. The farmer’s wife brought me food at night. When I finally came out, my skin was peeling from the acid. She said to me, “Zyshe, come. I have hot soup with meat. You need it for your strength.” I refused. She said, “If your G-d wants to kill you for transgressing eating forbidden foods, let Him strike me instead.” But I still didn’t capitulate.
[This concludes Zeidie’s handwritten account. According to a letter he sent his brother, he was liberated in 1945. We have no other documented information.]
Zeidie was liberated by the Americans on Erev Pesach. They told him they had matzah, but when he walked into the dining room, to his horror, there was also bread. He left the room and ate only apples and water the entire Pesach. Zeidie hadn’t eaten any forbidden food throughout the entire war; he certainly wasn’t going to start then.
Zeidie went to Lodz where he would meet the trains bearing incoming refugees with tefillin and tzitzis. When people asked how they could get kosher food, he lent them his own pot so that no one had to eat treif for lack of a pot.
Zeidie started a yeshivah right after the war. No one wanted to stay in blood-soaked Poland so they moved to Paris, taking the yeshivah with them. Zeidie worked very hard to keep it going. He would do anything to ensure that people would be able to learn Torah.
Eventually, Zeidie made it to the United States. There he married Bubbie Pearl, a daughter of the Yasser Rebbe, Harav Avraham Yosef Yoska Gottesman (refer to Monuments column, page 42), and they raised a beautiful family of three daughters.
When his first grandchild was born, Zeidie was very anxious to see her. Everyone watched in awe as Zeidie held her for the first time and stated that all his struggles and suffering were worthwhile, just for that moment. Seeing the continuation of his family gave him much chizuk, and each addition brought Zeidie the nachas he so deserved.