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It’s not often I claim I’ve read a book that has changed my life. But this one did. And I thank @ontheleftcoast for telling me about it. Although I have studied the Holocaust over the years, I had never read a story about life in the shtetl, a small town with primarily Jewish residents in Eastern Europe.
This book, There Once was a World, was written by Yaffa Eliach, whose parents were Moshe and Zipporah Sonenson. This family, prosperous in Eishyshok terms, was also a pillar of the community, generous, compassionate, learned, and devoted to Judaism. The book also provided stories of individuals and families, and descriptions of Jewish life, from Torah study to the requirements of the faith.
The reason I was moved so deeply by the book was that, unlike many stories I have read about the Holocaust, with all its tragedies, human depravity, and horror, I had never read so many stories of individuals in one community: people with names, personalities, duties, and devotion to the Torah. Their lives, unlike the Jews in other urban cities in Europe, were difficult and demanding.
In the more recent years of Eishyshok’s existence, especially in the 19th century, many Jews were drawn to the opportunities of the United States and Israel; emigrating to Israel was, of course, the dream of many Jews. Some of them traveled back and forth to the shtetl; others brought their families to join them.
But in reading the book, there was no escaping the devastation that the town was finally forced to endure. Throughout the book were photographs of men, women, and children whom I’d gotten to know through their stories. I began to realize that most of the photos had descriptions that included, “Murdered in the massacre of Eishyshok.” A part of me wanted to skip over those descriptions, but I simply could not. I realized that these people whom I had gotten to know were going to die in a terrible ordeal; these many years later I was bearing witness to their tragedy.
By 1939, word of the Nazis and their atrocities was arriving in Eishyshok. Some Jews refused to believe they were in danger because during and after World War I, the Germans had treated them decently (from their perspective). Others simply refused to leave friends and family. So, on September 25 and 26, 1941 first men, then women and children, were forced by the Nazis to walk to the Old Cemetery, where deep trenches had been built previously to keep out the cattle. It took two days to kill all of the people, creating massive graves in those trenches, which filled to overflowing. Ultimately, with Jews from other villages, 5,000 people were killed.
Some people did miraculously escape the slaughter, and even survived the war in hiding.
As I meditated on this story, it reminded me of the many other stories I’ve heard of Jews who assumed they would be safe where they were living, who assumed that their neighbors and surrounding villages would not harm them and even provide sanctuary for them.
They were wrong.
* * *
So, two major questions have come up for me: what would I have done if I’d lived in Eishyshok? Would I have left for the US or Israel well before the danger? Would I have lined up with the others who were shot to death? Would I have tried to escape, find a home with a non-Jewish family (many of whom betrayed their friends)? Would I have tried to live in the forest and dodge the pursuing army? Would I have become a partisan?
The second question that I contemplate today is if I thought I was in danger, where I live in these times, what would I do? How imminent would the danger need to be for me to be seriously concerned? Would there need to riots in my town? In my community? Would there need to be shootings? Would I leave? Would I fight back?
I don’t know how imminent and far-ranging the danger will become in the US from riots and violence carried out by nihilists, Marxists, and others. But having led a life of peace and prosperity, only to discover that my life, my family, and friends were in danger, what would I do?
What would you do?Published in