Jew, Go Back to the Grave!
A native of Vilna, Poland, Yaffa Eliach is the editor of Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, from which the following selection is taken. Based on interviews with a Holocaust survivor, Zvi Michalowski, and several other people from the town of Eisysky, Lithuania, Eliach paints a chilling portrait of the events leading to the birth of the Jewish resistance in this area.
On Rosh Hashana, 1941, when all the Jews of Eisysky and nearby towns awaited their fate in the shtetls' synagogues, watched over by lunatics whom their Lithuanian captors had appointed as their supervisors, it was clear to the Rabbi of Eisysky, Rabbi Shimon Rozowsky, that his beloved shtetl was doomed. A few days earlier he had called the town's notables together and told them, 'Jews, our end is near. God does not wish our redemption; our fate is sealed and we must accept it. But let us die with honor, let us not walk as sheep to the slaughter. Let us purchase ammunition and fight until our last breath. Let us die like judges in Israel: 'Let me die with the Philistines.'
Some had supported him, but the opposition, led by Yossel Wildenburg, prevailed. Now it was too late. From the synagogues, they were led to the horse market. At the head of the strange procession, more than 4,000 Jews, walked Rabbi Shimon Rozowsky, dressed in his Sabbath finery and his tall silk yarmulke. Next to him walked the handsome hazan of Eisysky, Mr. Tabolsky. The hazan wrapped in his talk, was holding the holy Torah scrolls. The rabbi and the hazan together were leading the congregation in reciting the Vidduy, the confession of the dying.
In groups of two hundred and fifty, first the men and then the women, the people were taken to the old Jewish cemetery in front of the open ditches. They were ordered to undress and stand at the edge of the open graves. They were shot in the back of the head by Lithuanian guards with the encouragement and help of the local people. The chief executioner was the Lithuanian Ostrovakas. Dressed in a uniform, a white apron, and gloves, he personally supervised the killing. He reserved for himself the privilege of shooting the town's notables, among them Rabbi Shimon Rozowsky, and he practiced sharpshooting at the children, aiming as they were thrown into the graves.
Among the Jews that September 25, 1941, in the old Jewish cemetery of Eisysky was one of the shtetl's melamdim (teachers), Reb Michalowsky, and his youngest son, Zvi, age sixteen. Father and son were holding hands as they stood naked at the edge of the open pit, trying to comfort each other during their last moments. Young Zvi was counting the bullets and the intervals between one volley of fire and the next. As Ostrovakas and his people were aiming their guns, Zvi fell into the grave a split second before the volley of fire hit him.
He felt the bodies piling up on top of him and covering him. He felt the streams of blood around him and the trembling pile of dying bodies moving beneath him.
It became cold and dark. The shooting died down above him. Zvi made his way from under the bodies, out of the mass grave into the cold, dead night. In the distance, Zvi could hear Ostrovakas and his people singing and drinking, celebrating their great accomplishment. After eight hundred years, on September z6, 1941, Eisysky was Judenfrei.
At the far end of the cemetery, in the direction of the huge church, were a few Christian homes. Zvi knew them all. Naked, covered with blood, he knocked on the first door. The door opened. A peasant was holding a lamp which he had looted earlier in the day from a Jewish home. "Please let me in," Zvi pleaded. The peasant lifted the lamp and examined the boy closely. "Jew, go back to the grave where you belong!" he shouted at Zvi and slammed the door in his face. Zvi knocked on other doors, but the response was the same.
Near the forest lived a widow whom Zvi knew too. He decided to knock on her door. The old widow opened the door. She was holding in her hand a small, burning piece of wood. "Let me in!" begged Zvi. "Jew, go back to the grave at the old cemetery!" She chased Zvi away with the burning piece of wood as if exorcising an evil spirit, a dybbuk.
"I am your Lord, Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me—the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in," said Zvi Michalowsky. The widow crossed herself and fell at his blood-stained feet. "Boze moj, Boze moj (my God, my God)," she kept crossing herself and praying. The door was opened.
Zvi walked in. He promised her that he would spare from damnation both her family
and her, but only if she would keep his visit a secret for three days and three nights and not reveal it to a living soul, not even the priest. She gave Zvi food and clothing and warm water to wash himself. Before leaving the house, he once more reminded her that the Lord's visit must remain a secret, because of His special mission on earth.
Dressed in a farmer's clothing, with a supply of food for a few days, Zvi made his way to the nearby forest. Thus, the Jewish partisan movement was born in the vicinity of Eisysky