In honor of Holocaust Memorial Day, I’ll share with you a section from a book about daily life in my father’s shtetl. The book is called Memories of Ozarov, by Hillel Adler. Second-generation survivors owe a great debt to authors such as Adler, who died in 1996. In addition to this (possibly exaggerated) account, the book contains the only existing photograph of my father as a child.
My grandfather frequently served on the local rabbinic court. Here is what Adler writes about him:
Pinchas lived with his family at 21 Main Street. He was one of the most talented Talmudists. You could often see him at his table by a window immersed in the study of his holy books. His wife Faiga had a little milk and cheese business. Every morning she would make deliveries to her Jewish customers. And if one of those customers actually came to their house to fetch a liter of milk while Faiga was away, Reb Pinchas was displeased. He would have much preferred to avoid opening the door so as not to lose precious time away from his portion. Despite Pinchas’ entire days spent in prayer, the good Lord never seemed to send down enough from Heaven to feed his three [MiI: four] children, of whom the eldest was a girl named Hendel.
This daughter Hendel shone in her studies of Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew. She also learned Talmud with her father, very rare for a girl of that time, and took part in the settlement of disputes with her father.
With such Talmudic knowledge, Reb Pinchas regretted that she was not a boy, who might in that case have one day become a rabbi. Who would have thought at that time that by the end of the century there could be such a thing as a female rabbi! But in Ozarow Hendel had to be content with giving lessons to a few children whose parents were well-off. One of these children was Chana, the daughter of Rabbi Reuven Epsztein, a girl who had been allowed to forgo the public Polish school. Hendel taught her the required seven-year curriculum.
On September 6, 1939, the sixth day of the war, Hendel was shot by the first German patrol in Ozarow. (pp. 56-57)
In 1942, when Germans decided to liquidate the town, my father escaped with false papers. My grandfather was concerned about whether my father should take the tefillin made according to the opinion of Rashi, or Rabbenu Tam. My father realized that carrying tefillin (phylacteries) was out of the question. He cut off his peyot (sidelocks) and removed his thick glasses. Then he walked away as if he knew where he was going. No one stopped him (at that point).
After wandering around Poland, he worked in a German factory along with other foreigners brought to replace the dwindling German workforce. Only after the war did my father learn that his parents, younger sister, and brother, were murdered in the death camp of Treblinka.