KADDISH - THE PRAYER AT THE MASS GRAVE
Written by Alexander Kimel .
I am a Holocaust survivor, and I often wonder why did I survive, while
millions perished? Was it luck or was it fate? To answer this haunting
question, I often go back in my memory to my first brush with death.
On March 19, 1942, I was part of a group of Jews, that was led to a bleak,
desolate place outside the city, a large plateau, with sparse grass and dwarf
At the site, a tall German with a red, square face, told us, "You are
going to dig underground storage facilities". Soon, the area looked like a
gigantic construction site. People were diligently digging, breaking up the
excavated boulders and carting away the dirt.
After a backbreaking day, I returned home and my father told me: "Josh,
I arranged a job for you with the German Army. You are going to work as a
The next day, early in the morning I left for my new job. I was anxious
and worried "How will I manage? What do carpenters really do?" It was dark
outside and lights shone through the small windows. The dilapidated streets
were covered with a blanket of white snow. The ghetto looked quiet and
At the job, I was assigned to help a German soldier named Hans, who
heartily laughed at my clumsy handling of the saw. "To make a straight cut
you have to pull the saw gently. Don't jerk it. Don't use force," Hans
I was so involved in my work that I did not pay attention to the
intermittent shooting that erupted at midday. At lunch time, I sat at the
roadside with Willy, the other Jewish carpenter. A passing Ukrainian peasant
warned us, "They are killing the Jews in town. Why aren't you boys hiding?"
"Killing Jews? What are you talking about?" I did not believe him.
"Look there. See for yourself."
I turned around and in the distance I saw heavy German trucks disgorging
people, who were then driven uphill on foot. I heard the shooting
intermittently, but I did not believe that killings were taking place. I did
not know what to do, but before I could make a decision, Willy took off and
ran in the direction of the railroad station, and I followed him.
We found shelter in a storage room filled with cement. We sat in the far
corner, hiding under a mound of cement. The shooting grew louder and louder.
Soon it turned into a continuous barrage. I leaned against Willy, and felt his
heart beating wildly.
We sat there for a very long time. It seemed like an eternity. At five
o'clock, the shooting stopped. Covered with cement dust, we crawled out from
our hiding place and, oblivious to our appearance, walked back to the ghetto.
I walked in a daze. Despite the shooting, the possibility that people had
actually been killed did not occur to me. I expected to find everybody alive
and everything in order. I blocked out the unpleasant reality from my
On the way home, I saw a horse-drawn wagon loaded with stained clothing.
The wagon driver, whip in hand, walked alongside the wagon.
"Where are they taking this soiled clothing?" I asked the Jews who were
walking behind the wagon.
"Come give us a hand. We are taking the corpses to the mass grave for
burial," came the answer.
"For burial? What are they talking about? Nobody buries stained
clothing." As I looked closer, I was shocked. This was not bloodstained
clothing but corpses, real human corpses. My heart skipped a beat.
I didn't want to go but I couldn't refuse. I started to walk behind the
loaded wagon. Squeaking and shuddering, the wagon turned from the main road
onto a hilly dirt road. I recognized the place. I recognized the road. This
was the road that I had been on two days ago when I went to build the
underground storage facilities. The buggy, overloaded with the corpses,
swayed. The horses slowed.
"Let's push," yelled the driver. I went closer, grabbed the wooden railing
of the wagon, and to my horror, I recognized the face of one of the corpses.
It was Arnold, a classmate of mine. "Oh my God! This is Arnoldek. I just
kidded him yesterday." I felt a tremor passing through my body.
Arnoldek was a plump, good-natured boy. At school he sat next to me, on
the same bench. He loved candy and his rustling of crushed candy wrappers,
used to drive me crazy. Now he was dead. I couldn't believe it.
Arnoldek's head stuck out from the spikes of the side ladder. I gently
pushed it back. I was astonished at my own calmness. No feelings, just
emptiness. Limitless emptiness.
We soon arrived at the destination. The ghastly panorama unfolded. The
tremendous pit was filled with bodies, floating in a sea of blood. The
Germans were gone and the pit was guarded by Ukrainian militia. They told us
to dump the bodies into the pit, and to collect the bodies of the victims who
had been shot while trying to escape.
After we finished collecting the scattered bodies, Moses the Shoemaker
called out, "Jews, let say Kaddish." Before long, the group lined up in
front of the pit and started to recite the age-old prayer
During the recitation of the Kaddish, I felt a wave of resentment. The
words of the Kaddish burned holes in my heart.
"And the name of the Lord be sanctified and extolled." For me, praising
God, standing at the mass grave filled with innocent victims, some still
alive, was sacrilegious. It was blasphemy! It was a mockery! I couldn't do
I stopped saying the Kaddish and glanced at the mourners. Looking at those
broken people, who with rhythmic motions recited the sacred prayer like their
fathers had done for a thousand years, gave me a glimpse of the indestructible
Jewish soul, the source of our strength and weakness.
Suddenly, I saw a commotion in the corner of the pit. Somebody was trying
to get out. I wanted to run and help, but when I heard the cocking of a gun,
I froze in place. "Josh, you might be next. Why don't you join in the
I joined the mourners. "May there be abundant peace and life for us and
for all Israel . . . " I stopped . . . Peace? . . . Life? . .. I looked
around and recognized a boulder I had excavated yesterday. It was covered
with blood. "God," I cried out in desperation, "when my Judgment Day
arrives, I will come before you as the accuser, not the defendant. Why are
those atrocities committed by man upon man? Why have you abandoned us?" I
After the Kaddish, the group slowly started to move towards the ghetto. We
moved in deep silence. Again I felt an empty stupor. As we approached the
boundaries of the ghetto, my heart pounded wildly. I jumped the border stream
and ran toward the house. I was looking for my parents. The kitchen was
empty. On the kitchen table I found a pot with peeled potatoes soaking in
water. The potatoes were covered with black spots. Seeing this, I almost
fainted. My mother would never leave potatoes covered with water, because
they spoil. I was certain that my poor mother was dead.
I ran out of the house and saw my mother standing in the alley. "Mom," I
yelled. "You are alive." I embraced my parents and burst out crying. "Where
did you hide?" I didn't see my sister. "Where is Luba?"
My mother started to sob. "Oh, my darling daughter must be dead. I will
not survive this." We tried to calm her down, to no avail. Her loud cries
brought the neighbors into the alley.
Abe Tunis, our neighbor from across the street, came out with an ashen
face. He had aged ten years in one day.
"I came home and all my family, my wife and three children are gone. I
will never see them again." He quietly started to cry.
"All my life I was waiting for the day that my children would leave the
nest. I never expected that this will happen in such a way. I can't stay in
the room, all the small things, the hair brush, the night gown, the slippers
remind me of my children. Now, they are all gone."
For the first time in my life, I saw a grownup man weep uncontrollably. One
of his daughters, I knew well. Esterka was a petite, charming girl with red
hair and a freckled face. She was always neatly dressed in a black school
uniform with an immaculate white collar. She was my age.
Esterka had two main concerns in life: her freckles and her grades. She
considered the freckles a big blemish and spent all her lunch money on exotic
creams. In school, she had difficulties with algebra and asked me for help.
Esterka was now gone. Freckles and algebra will not bother her.
I felt embarrassed. I did know not what to do or what to say. Silently, I
left the crying man and went in search of my sister.
At the next house, I saw two small children crying. A little boy, about
four years old, was crying for his mommy. He was comforted by his older
sister, Rachel, a six year-old. "Don't cry, Mottel. Our mommy will return."
She pulled him up to her and with her small hand wiped away his tears.
When I approached them, she looked up to me. Her big expressive eyes were
filled with sadness. She was mature. She understood. She knew. In her
eyes, I saw the reflection of 2000 years of agony and sufferings of my people.
Little Rachel reminded me of my sister Luba, who also acted as my mother.
With a heavy heart, I turned around and went to look for my sister.
At the Judenrat, everything was in a disarray. Nobody could help me. It
grew dark and I decided to return home. When I returned, my mother was
standing in the alley, embracing my sister. Seeing this I felt a wave of
euphoria sweeping over me. I became excited. "We made it! We are all
alive!" I was ashamed of this joyous feeling and desperately tried to
suppress it. To no avail. "You are a selfish bastard," I told myself over
and over again.
This feeling of shame has stayed with me throughout my adult life. Only in
the later years, I fully realized the precariousness and limitations of the
human existence. "Today you are here, tomorrow you are gone. A man can't
control his feelings and, in time of danger, he rarely controls his deeds."
Man is from dust and to dust he returns. I became more understanding of myself
and more forgiving of others.
I often think of Chana, Tonka, Rachel. How did they die? Were they
scared or resigned? How did they take the long, torturous journey to the
gas chambers? Did they know? Did they know that at the end of the journey,
two hours after their arrival, they would be converted into a heap of ashes?
A heap of human ashes. Burned out souls - incinerated bodies - discarded
ashes. The perfect Nazi cycle.
I also often think of my friend Willy with whom I survived this dreadful
day. Willy was a fighter. In December of 1942, Willy was caught, stripped
naked and sent to the gas chambers. With bleeding fingernails, he pried open
the planks of the cattle car and jumped the train. He survived the Ghetto, the
cold and hunger of the forest, but on May 8, one day before the Armistice,
Willy Bloch died in the Battle for Berlin.
For Willy, Esterka, Rachel, Abe and countless other nameless and faceless
victims, I do say Kaddish now.