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Jewish Journal

Holidays

by Norman Salsitz

October 16, 1997 | 8:00 pm

"But then a man with a red beard held aTorah out and called 'Zaleski, I give this honor to Zaleski.'"Photo from "The Jews In America," 1995.

By 1965, I was a well-established suburbanite living inSpringfield, whose Jewish community included both a Reform andConservative congregation. My personal affiliation was with TempleBeth Ahm, the Conservative synagogue, but one of the people in thecommunity whom I liked very much was Israel Dresner, the rabbi of theReform temple, Sha'arey Shalom.

While I had slipped away from Orthodox observance many decadesbefore, I did retain a knowledge of Judaism and Jewish matters gainedfrom my hasidic upbringing in Kolbuszowa, Poland. Many evenings overthe years, Rabbi Dresner and I enjoyed one another's company, as wediscussed matters of Jewish custom and observance.

One year, Rabbi Dresner had an inspired idea. He realized that hisReform congregation of westernized Jews had not the remotestacquaintanceship with the fervor with which the ultra-Orthodoxpractice their shared religion. He organized a bus trip to Brooklyn,N.Y., on the holiday of Simchat Torah that would bring interestedmembers of his congregation to observe how the hasidim celebrate theFestival of the Rejoicing of the Torah. The rabbi asked me if I wouldlike to go along; I readily assented. It had been many years since Ihad been with the hasidim at Simchat Torah.

The bus arrived in the Eastern Parkway section of Brooklyn.Ultimately, we found ourselves in the shul of the Bobover rebbe,Shlomo Halberstam. The Bobover hasidim wore heavy beards, weresilk-coated and were capped by elegant sable fur streimels. While theSpringfield Jews stood back in reserve, I plunged into the crowd,elbows flying, and in a matter of moments they could see me throughthe window.

Here the celebration was characterized by the rebbe, his headcovered by his tallit, dancing with the Torah for hours on end. Forthis purpose, he held a special miniature parchment scroll in hisembrace and whirled and whirled. I stood on a table, clapping myhands, singing and shouting alongside the hasidim. Part of thiscustom is the hakafot, or giving out of honors to deservingcongregants who dance with the Torah and the rabbi. The first hakafotare usually given to the kohanim (members of the priestly tribe) andthen if there are more Torah scrolls than kohanim, the remainder aregiven to the important congregants. Seven times during the evening,one has a chance to be so honored, and as the crowd cheered, asilk-coated hasid, resplendent in fur hat and flowing red beard,standing on a chair next to the ark, called out the names of those tobe so honored. With each name, an eager worshiper reached forward totake the Torah and join in the wild dance with the rabbi. While I ama kohen, this fact was unknown, and I was content to remain on thesidelines.

But then a man with a red beard held a Torah out and called"Zaleski, I give this honor to Zaleski." When no one in thecongregation responded, once again he called, "Zaleski," and as Iturned from facing the crowd to look at him, I realized that theTorah was being thrust toward me.

Zaleski. I hadn't thought about using that name for 20 years.Zaleski was the name I had adopted while masquerading as a PolishCatholic in the army during the war years. Tadeusz Zaleski. Thishasid with the red beard was honoring Tadeusz Zaleski with thehakafa. In bewilderment, I stepped down from the table and acceptedthe Torah; and as the group from Springfield peered in through thewindow, I whirled around the shul, Torah in my embrace, dancing withthe Bobover rebbe.

At length, I yielded up the scroll and tugged at the arm of theman who had called my name. "Why did you give me the scroll?" I askedin Yiddish. "How do you know me as Zaleski?"

"I owe you a debt," he replied, "and I am glad to repay some smallpart of it by giving you this honor."

"But I don't know you," I protested.

"Yes, you do," he said. "Do you remember back in Cracow, when yourescued two boys who were being held in a coal bin in the policestation?"

Two boys in a coal bin. My mind went back to before America,before Germany, before the escape from Poland. Two boys in a coalbin; yes, I remembered.

It was winter 1945. By that year, I had advanced within the Polishsecurity forces to the position of head of the state security for theCounty of Cracow and its neighboring communities. For a known Jew tohold such a position in the Polish government would have beenimpossible. However, only a handful of people within the governmentknew I was Jewish. To the rest, I was Tadeusz Zaleski. I spokeperfect, unaccented Polish, had a characteristic Polish face and wasclean shaven; there was no reason to believe I was anything otherthan the Roman Catholic officer I claimed to be.

After Russian forces liberated Poland, the few Jewish survivorsgradually began to drift back into the cities. Cracow was noexception, and as the number of Jews grew, they organized themselvesinto Jewish committees to look after Jewish interests. Shortly afterI arrived in Cracow, I made it a point to visit the leadership of theCracow Jewish Committee, a lawyer named Stulbach and a woman namedMarianska, to take them into my confidence by revealing that I was aJew and to let them know that I was available to do whatever I could,unofficially, to ease their circumstances.

While I could do little within the formal structure, there was agreat deal I might do unofficially. The small Jewish community wasextremely vulnerable to both governmental and personal abuse inPoland, and my offer was gratefully accepted. At that time, RabbiMoshe Steinberg, a rabbi who by some miracle had survived the war,served as spiritual leader of the threadbare Jewish community ofCracow. With my permission, Stulbach told Rabbi Steinberg about me,and the rabbi would, from time to time, arrange to have me contacthim, so I could learn of Jewish needs in the community. It wasthrough Rabbi Steinberg that I learned one day of two Jewish boysfrom a small town outside Cracow who had been arrested by the policefor black market dealings and had disappeared. The police had caughtthem transporting a truckload of sugar, had confiscated the vehicleand its cargo and had taken the boys into custody. From that pointon, they had vanished with no satisfactory answer ever given to theconcerned inquiries made by the Jewish committee. The rumor was thatthe authorities had kept the sugar for their own profit and turnedthe boys over to the Cracow militia to be held somewhere in a Cracowjail.

As head of the state security, I was indirectly superior to thelocal militia. While we didn't report through the same chain ofcommand, our political sponsorship placed us in the dominantposition. However, this political dominance could not prevent simplelying. It never has. The next morning, I inquired of the chiefs ofeach of the precincts whether they knew anything of the fate of thesetwo brothers. Not surprisingly, none did. So I set out on a precinctby precinct inspection of the jail facilities of Cracow's 12precincts.

To all appearances, the inspection had nothing to do with themissing Jewish brothers. It was simply an inventory of the city'sjail cells undertaken for bureaucratic reasons. One by one, I visitedthe dingy jails in the basements of the precinct headquarters. One byone, the cell doors were thrown open for my inspection. Some cellswere occupied, others vacant. Most contained the occupants called forby the records criminals and political offenders of various stripes.

At length, I came to one building in the precinct called Wolnica;the inspection was proceeding just as the others had, except that atthe end of the dark basement corridor, there was one door stilllocked tight. When I inquired about it, the police chief assured methat it was just a bin used for the storage of coal. Nevertheless, Ipersisted in being allowed to look inside. The keys are lost, I wastold, whereupon I backed everyone away, took out my side arm and shotthe padlock off the door. As the door swung open, I was able todiscern in the dim light of the bin two filthy figures -- the missingJewish boys I was seeking. As the alarmed chief dissembled about lostrecords and confused paper work, I berated him for incompetence andworse. At length, I relented in my chastisement of him. "Just cleanthem up and get them to my headquarters. I will take care of thismatter myself."

Relieved that his obvious impropriety had not led to anythingworse, the militia chief readily assented and by the end of the day,the prisoners were presented.

The boys told the story that the Jewish committee anticipated.They had been arrested, beaten and locked in the dirty bin two weeksbefore. While they had been fed on a daily basis, they had never beencharged. Frightened and hungry, they stood before me, the embodimentof state power, expecting only the worse.

You can imagine the relief they felt when I told them I had beensent to look for them by Rabbi Steinberg, that I was Jewish and thatI was going to let them go, providing they left the Cracow territoryand I never saw either of them again. And I never did until thatnight in Brooklyn.

"How in the world do you recognize me?" I now asked of the hasid."I don't know you at all."

"I could never forget your face, especially your eyebrows," hesaid. "I have constantly thought of how we were delivered from thatcoal bin in Cracow. The minute you walked in, I knew it was you."

He noted that in Cracow, I had been an adult, clean shaven then,and so I was now. He, on the other hand, had been a youth who had nowmatured, grown a beard, put on a black coat and was virtually adifferent person from the one I had set free. Joseph in Egypt, hereminded me, had similarly not been recognized by the brothersbecause he had been a young boy, and he had changed in much the waythe hasid had.

"No, it is you, Zaleski," he said. And while the people from theSpringfield suburbs in New Jersey stared through the window of theshul in Brooklyn, their neighbor, who had danced with the Boboverrebbe, now fell into the embrace of a red-bearded hasid, dressed inthe black silk coat and fur streimel, his face wet with longsuppressed tears of joy.


Norman Salsitz of Springfield, N.J., is the author of twobooks, "A Jewish Boyhood in Poland" (Syracuse University Press) and"Against All Odds" (Holocaust Library, New York), the latterco-written with his wife, Amalie. Stanley Kalish is a professor ofeconomics at Rutgers University, Newark. He is collaborating on abook with Salsitz about his experiences and memories.


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