In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt. Passover Hagadah.
It was at the Passover Seder that Sam Goldberg would tell and retell his tales of slavery and exodus. He would recount the stories of his family’s flight from their home, his capture by the German after Blitzkrieg, his escape from the German POW camp, the horrors of Treblinka and the revolt, meeting Esther in the woods, hiding in the pit, fleeing the murderous Poles in Ostrow and the arrival on the US Jumper to New York Harbor. It was not hard to “regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt,” because he had.
In the spirit of helping us imagine ourselves as people who were enslaved, whose lives were embittered, who had no freedom, I share with you some quotes from a powerful book I just finished: Such a Beautiful Sunny Day: Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside, 1942-1945, by Barbara Engleking. In this book, Professor Engelking attempts to look hard at what happened to those Jews in the Polish countryside who escaped the initial liquidation of towns and ghettoes. Those, like Esther Goldberg, who hid in an attic and were not caught when the Nazi soldiers came to Stoczek to take the Jews to Treblinka. Or those very few, like Sam, who escaped a Death Camp – like Treblinka. She found testimonies – in court records, diaries and other Jewish sources – of those who hid in the Polish countryside.
Estera Cudzynowska – hiding in area of Dzialoszyce (Pinczow County):
“Together with other castaways I was hiding in burrows, cellars, and pits. We lived like moles, digging more and more deeply into the ground to avoid the terrible fate that befell our loved ones. [. . . ] I was completely alone, without means and without any possibilities. I avoided people. I was panic-stricken by my fear of them. I left my hiding place only at night, like an owl. [. . . ] As a result of this lifestyle, my intuition developed to the point that I could sense danger at a distance. My sense of smell came to resemble that of a wild animal. I changed my whereabouts very often because playing children often discovered my tracks. [. . . ] I pulled out succulent blades of grass and ate them. I quenched my thirst by sucking liquids from roots. Sometimes someone would pity me and throw me a piece of bread like to a dog. For me it was nothing less than a feast.” (Engelking, 63)
Jochewed Kantorowicz from Traczyn wandered with her sister:
“Thrown out from everywhere and robbed, ultimately they decided to dig a shelter in the forest: ‘My sister told me: ‘Even rabbits make pits for themselves, why should we be worse than rabbits?’ We started to dig the pit at night. We worked so strenuously that we dug the whole pit over two nights. We lined it with moss, and covered the opening with spars. We lay for two weeks in this pit. [. . . ] One day some peasants discovered us[. . . ] We fled to another forest. [. . . ] We became skilled at digging pits and over several days we dug several of them, but had to leave them because we were seen every time. We decided to dig a shelter by the river because the underbrush was very thick there. However, this shelter didn’t come out as we wanted, because it was too close to water and liable to be flooded. [. . . ] We were getting terribly cold; it was already October 9, 1943, and the trees were covered with hoarfrost. We were going helplessly in circles, barefoot and hungry in the forest. We didn’t know what to do, and decided to go into a larger forest.’” (Engelking, 77-78)
Journal of Aryek Klonicki:
“Heat swallows us during the day, and we suffer from cold during the night. However, we would be happy if we knew for certain that his was our greatest problem. Adam, our little son, is with Frania in her house. [. . . ] We decided not to leave the field even during the night so that no one would notice our presence. This is why we cannot see our bubele. [. . . ] Last night, July 8, I didn’t write. There was a pouring rain at seven o’clock and we got wet. We waited until one o’clock in the morning for the rain to stop, as we had been exposed to the downpour for six hours, but it didn’t stop. We left the field and went to our peasants. He feared to shelter us in the house and put us up in the potato pit, where we spent the whole day. Darkness didn’t let me write. [. . . ] Yesterday I didn’t write anything. It was fiercely cold. On July 9, in the evening an icy wind began blowing and it lasted for the whole day yesterday. It’s terribly uncomfortable. Gusts of wind penetrate our bones. . . . Last night we couldn’t sleep and today too we can barely close our eyes. [. . . ] The sky is overcast. A cold wind is blowing. We are waiting for the sun to come out and warm our freezing bodies. [. . . ] The unceasing rains flattened the grains in the field. As a result, we were noticed by a peasant who happened to pass by. [. . . ] It’s been raining all day with short breaks. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to continue my diary. For all I know these could be my last words. I’m ending now because it’s raining.” (Engelking, 96)
These accounts help me imagine more intimately the impossible situation in which Sam, Esther and other Jews found themselves, allowing me to appreciate my freedom anew. As I anticipate gathering with the Goldberg family at our Seders, I will do my best to regard myself as if I left Egypt or more recently, Poland and to experience the Passover Seder with fresh eyes and renewed vigor.
I invite you, the readers of this blog, to take a Sam and Esther story, share it at your Seder and feel as if you too were liberated.
Chag Kasher V’Sameach – wishing you a very happy Passover.