Recalling My Father and the Jewish Past in Ozarow, Poland

Lukasz Rzepka holds the Polish translation of my father Ben Zion Wacholder's Memories: Wspomnienia. My father's picture is hanging in the background.
Lukasz holding “Memories” next to a picture of my father Ben Zion Wacholder z”l

Several months ago, I wrote about Lukasz Rzepka, the graduate student who, like with my father Ben Zion Wacholder z”l, was born in Ozarow, Poland. After months of preparation, Lukasz has published the first volume of the BOZnica project. It contains my father’s “Memories” of the last days before the liquidation of the town’s Jewish community in 1942, along with a great deal of supplementary material.

On Sunday, the eve of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and my father’s birthday according to a list of residents from the time, Lukasz hosted a standing-room-only ceremony in Ozarow to launch the project. One of his goals was to recreate for the residents, in some small way, the experience of living among Jews. Before the war, almost 70% of Ozarow’s 5000 townspeople were Jews. The event was filmed and I hope to be able to share it soon, along with English and Hebrew subtitles.

In advance of the event, Lukasz visited the two local high schools to talk about the project. He also met with readers from four of Ozarow’s libraries, who regularly get together to discuss books. The schoolteachers  and the library-goers both recalled their relatives telling them about their Jewish neighbors.

We are looking forward to meeting Lukasz and his fellow researcher when they visit Israel in December. 

I would like to share the letter I wrote for the volume on behalf of my family. It appears there (with minor changes) in both English and Polish.

My father, Ben Zion Wacholder of blessed memory, was a kind and learned man who made important contributions to the world of Jewish scholarship. Born in Ozarow in the early 1920’s, he was the only survivor of the destruction of the Jewish community in October 1942 and the murder of its citizens.

My father writes that he felt his job was to bear witness to the destruction of the Jewish community of Ozarow. In these short chapters now being published in Polish for the first time, Ben Zion Wacholder describes the community’s history, its personalities, the vibrant Jewish religious life and scholarship, the touching relationships with his parents Fayga and Pinchas Shlomo and siblings Sarah Hendel, Aaron and Ruchla Shifra, as well as the moral dilemmas faced by the community during the three years of German occupation. Ozarow was already undergoing enormous social change in the years before the war. His experiences there, along with the Talmudic skills passed down to him from both his father and his maternal grandfather, Mordechai David Lederman, contributed to his ability to analyze ancient Jewish texts including the Talmud, exegetical writings, Judaeo-Greek literature, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

When I began to correspond with Lukasz Rzepka, I was struck by his sincerity and his quest to uncover the knowledge of my father’s family and other members of the community. Both his and my father’s work involve a careful examination of the written record in order to recreate an accurate picture of the thoughts and actions of those who lived long ago.

My father and Lukasz, both scholars born in Ozarow who trained under two different religious traditions, share a love of knowledge and scholarship. We are honored that Lukasz chose to study the lost Jewish community of their common birthplace, and that he saw the value of sharing my father’s writing with the Polish people.

While many in the Jewish and scholarly community have taken an interest in my father over the years, my family never imagined that someone from the mythical town of Ozarow, which we have not yet visited, would suddenly play an important role in our lives. On behalf of my family, especially my sister Nina, my brother David, and my brother Sholom of blessed memory who would have thoroughly supported this project, we thank you. Thank you for nudging us to look through old documents and pictures and for the many discussions your project has sparked among our family and friends. Thank you for persisting when we were slow to respond. Thank you for being a shining representative of the Polish people. Finally, thank you for your part in allowing our father to continue to bear witness on behalf of all of the murdered Jews of Ozarow and Poland.

For more information: 
Website about Ben Zion Wacholder, including the English version of “Memories,” maintained by my niece Shifra Goldenberg. 
Facebook page of BOZnica project
BOZnica website Easily accessible in English via Google Chrome
News report about the BOZnica launch
The Story of the Treblinka Extermination Camp

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