Hillel Adler of Ożarów, Poland


Ożarów is a member of the Museum's World Jewish Communities


Hillel Adler



At the beginning of 1945, the pincer-like offensive of the Allied and Soviet troops trapped the Germans, sounding the death knell of the Nazi regime. Poland was soon rid of foreign domination, but its appalled liberators discovered horrors on its soil which no one could have imagined and which had names: Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka ....

They went through many cities and towns which had until recently had large Jewish communities, but now there were no Jews to be found. Yet, a few rare survivors came out of their hiding places and crossed the barbed wire of their concentration camps.

That was the case with Maurice Gryner who had lived in Paris since 1935, and who had been deported to Auschwitz from there in 1943. By chance he survived and he was freed by the Soviet troops in February 1945. As soon as he could, he set out for Ostrowiec and Ozarow in the hope of finding some family members or friends.

Alas, Ozarow did not have a single living Jew. As if that pain weren't great enough, he also had to endure the incredulous greeting of any Poles whom he met: "Jeszcze zyjesz? - You're still alive?" For Maurice Gryner there was no doubt. He was not welcome in his own town of Ozarow. Several other young survivors from the camp at Tchenstochowa came to Ozarow, but the reception they received was such that they immediately got out.

Shejwa, the daughter of Itzchak-Chaim Borenstein, who had owned the mill situated on the Zawiechost Road, came back to Ozarow for a day in August 1945. To enter the town, she came by the Jasice Road.

Alas, she never reached the train station. She was found beside the road, strangled with her own scarf. According to the information I was able to gather when I passed through Ozarow on August 31, 1945, only a few days after her death, the murderer was a man called Osmenda.

In 1942, after the deportation of the Ozarow Jews, he had taken possession of the Borenstein mill. He must have spotted Shejwa removing a few objects from a hiding place at the mill, and then followed her to the edge of the village where he savagely attacked her.

After my own liberation, I too decided to go back to Ozarow. To tell the truth, I did not harbour any hope of finding any member of my family alive, but I thought that maybe I could gather some information about their tragic fate. On the train we were several survivors in the same circumstances. We had been warned to avoid the Armja Krajowa, a nationalist faction combatting the new regime which attacked and murdered Jews in cold blood, by going to Lodz instead of to small towns.

In Lodz, I discovered several Ozarowers miraculously unharmed.

They greeted us warmly; Yoissef Tcheresnia (an officer of the Polish Liberation Army) and Chaskiel Chalman, one of the 120 survivors of the Lodz ghetto. We also met Yocheved Fraiberg and her three children, the oldest of whom was only 12 years old. It was the first time we were able to see such a marvel with our own eyes: the next generation vibrant and carrying the future beside their mother. It was a symbol. Y ocheved, her husband Itzchak and their three children had lived in hiding in the country. Only a few weeks before the liberation, Itzchak had left their hiding place in search of food. Unfortunately, he never made it back. Later Yocheved and her children would emigrate to Canada.

Not a single Jew left in Ozarow! And the country itself, newly liberated, proved to be more than menacing. In theory, the Polish government respected the rights of its citizens regardless of their religion. But in practice that was not the case. Most of the functionaries had been in place from before the war. They therefore applied, without scruple, the laws of an anti-Semitic regime to which they adhered without reserve. For these clerks of the State, the murder of a Jewish survivor was not fundamentally evil. It certainly did not amount to a crime.

Ethel, the daughter of Moishe Weinryb, was part of our group of Qzarowers. She had suffered the fate of all the survivors: the ghetto, dislocation and internment until her liberation in April 1945.

In this hell, she had met a boy who had also survived the concentration camps, Hershel Jakubowicz. The two decided to marry. And the rest of us, overcome by emotion, crowded together to witness the ceremony. Afterwards, no one dared to venture outside the house so late at night for fear of being accosted and killed by the Polish nationalists. We spent the rest of the night stretched out on the floor, just as we had grown accustomed to in the camps.

The marriage of Ethel and Hershel warmed our hearts and took on a symbolic importance. It was as if life was reasserting itself. Ethel and Hershel managed to find a way to emigrate to the United States. And there they remain to this day surrounded by their family.

Poland was a dangerous place immediately after the war. It became necessary to organize ourselves to get out of the country as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the place was so disorganized that departures for the west were made easier. So I boarded a train at the central station in Lodz, bound for Ozarow.

The cars were dilapidated and jam-packed with travellers. I had to climb on board very quickly in order to have a better chance of finding a seat. All of a sudden, a soldier with rifle and bandolier placed his hand on my shoulder. I started, but then immediately recognized him. It was Stasiek Grela, whom I had known since school days! He was doing his military service in Lodz: "I'm so happy to see you alive," he offered. When I told him I was on my way to Ozarow, he said, "Be very careful. If you must spend the night there, go to my mother's and tell her that we met in Lodz. She lives alone and she will make you welcome!"

Stasiek found me a seat in a compartment and advised me to sleep.

The next morning, I was awakened by an identification control. The militia scrutinized all the identity cards and detained anyone who appeared suspect. The train got underway again, and I found myself facing a Pole who never stopped looking me over with his protruding eyes. He brusquely broke his silence: "How is it that the militia didn't bother to check whether your military status was in order? But of course! Now I get it! You're Jewish! The Bolshevik powers are protecting you. I'll bet that you or others like you disarmed me in Lwow in September 1939 when I was an officer in the Polish army!" Beside myself, I replied, "I spent the war in a concentration camp, so stop your disgusting accusations!" But he wouldn't back off. "Prove it to me," he hissed. "Show me your papers!" I was going to put my hand in my pocket when all of a sudden, the former Polish officer blew his nose, closing his eyes. I thought better of it and profited from the occasion to slip away. At the next stop, as a precaution, I changed cars.

Jasice. The Ozarow station. It was there in September 1942 that I left my village for the labour camp, and it was from there that my relatives made their last journey, to Treblinka.

I crossed the eerily silent meadows of Wyszmontow which were resplendent with a thousand different colours on the eve of the harvest. I entered Ozarow by Kolejowa Street. There was the house where I was born. In a corner of a window I imagined I could still make out my older sister Chava, anxiously looking after me as I left. Three years had gone by since. The market place was almost deserted. A few Poles approached me to talk, wanting to know how I could have survived. I could barely hear what they were saying, for before my eyes there still passed the images of what had so recently occurred in this cursed place. The wailing of our mothers still resounded in my ears.

We left Poland, heading for Germany, now occupied by the Allies, or Czechoslovakia, or Austria, on our way we hoped to the United States, Canada, France or Palestine, and far away from the desolate places of our shattered youth.

Ożarów 25







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