Now and forever! Amen!
Are you surprised? If I were you, I would be surprised too.
A bearded Jew who says a hail at the monastery's cemetery is a rare sight indeed!
You are right. I do not live here. I come from the States.
Yes. You could say to pay a visit. Except that it is not a living person.
No Sir, not my relatives. My family comes from here, but there is no trace of them. There is no Jewish cemetery either because the Germans destroyed it with the tanks. At least, that is what I was told.
No. It's not a secret. I came to visit the grave of Father Grom. Probably you don't know him. It was not his real name. He was called Grom (thunderclap) because his voice was terribly loud, and he used it like thunder, usually to scold the culprits.
My Polish language? Father Grom's birch rods had knocked it in my head for three years!
Are you curious? Then listen to my story.
When the Germans came, I was 9 years old. I went to a cheder for three years. The melamed there said that I was very gifted. I even started asking such questions that he sometimes referred them to the Rabbi. He said that I was already suitable for the yeshiva. My parents were very proud of me.
As the occupation came, everything changed. We got an order to move to the ghetto. It was an awful time. When the deportations began, the parents decided to save the children. Individually. They sent my older sister to a friend in the countryside. Marysia, who served us, brought me to a monastery's orphanage.
My sister didn't survive, and I met Father Grom.
The first time I saw and heard him, I shit my pants for fear.
"Who brought me that Jew here?! From the ghetto?! Are they evicting them? So what? I will not breed that limb of the evil! Not enough that they murdered our Lord? Should I expose the entire orphanage?!
And for what? For those scoundrels who drunk Polish blood and put the whole country in poverty?"
He stopped shouting, looked at me, and asked, "What's your name?" "Isaac Goldstein" "You will be not called any Isaac, you bastard! Especially not any Goldstein! From today, you are Irek Ziemba. Repeat!" I repeated, and he said, "Oh Jesus! On top of it, that creature doesn't speak Polish! Good Lord! Have mercy on us! Cross yourself! Not with the left hand, your leftie!"
"Listen, you fool! You have a choice. Either you will very quickly learn to cross yourself and speak correctly Polish, or you can go back to that ghetto". Marysia fell to her knees and begged father Grom. That I'm a good lad and a very gifted one. That I would not only learn the Polish language but also learn the entire Bible by heart. I was just shaking with fear and nodding.
Yes, Sir. I will remember that day to the end of my life.
I was accepted. All my curls were cut off, and I felt very naked.
Father Grom told me that no Jew had an easy life with him, and he would never change his attitude.
It started from day one. First name, last name, father's name, mother's name, godmother's name, name of the priest, and the parish where I lived. He told me to write it on the cupboard and cross myself every time after I was ready with the line. Every time Father Grom checked if there was any mistake in writing, spelling, or crossing. If there was any misspelling or wrong hand movement, he used the birch rod!
And it continued for six hours in a row!
In the evening, I went exhausted to the bunk and fell asleep like a stone. That's how I at last thought. Because just after midnight Father Grom woke me up and started again: "What's your name?! Which Isaac, your dumb! "And spank with the birch rod! "Cross yourself! Not with the left hand! "And the rod again!
It didn't dawn yet when he came the second time and tormented me again! And it continued the whole first year.
This first month was almost unbearable. Despite my best intentions, I didn't always remember where I was and what I said when I suddenly woke up. After a week, I almost stopped sleeping because I was afraid of the wake-up and the birch rods. I was waiting all the time for Grom to come and torment me. After a month, I figured out that the monastic rule, apart from four daily prayers, the children from the orphanage should also participate, included prayers at midnight (Compline) and at 4 a.m. (Lauds). So I invented a system of waking up at these times and pretending to be sleepy when Father Grom came to torment me. But he knew better anyway. After a while, he didn't always come after midnight. And I waited and couldn't sleep. Then he began to come sometime after midnight and once in the morning, changing the times as he pleased. Then he started taking breaks for several nights. And although I don't know how I tried, these rods would fly from time to time. Eventually, I developed a reflex in myself. When I woke up, it came out automatically: "Irek. Ziemba. Jan. Genowefa. Father Białek ". Father Grom's night visits became less and less and finally stopped. But I still have this wake-up automatic repetition to this day.
Meanwhile, there were religion lessons and learning the whole prayer book by heart. And the birch rods. And the birch rods. And the birch rods. The birch rods for prayer mistake. The birch rods for the errors in writing. The birch rods for pronunciation errors. The birch rods for mistakes in crossing oneself.
How I hated this man! How I tried to do everything properly! I used every free moment for repetition, repetition, and repetition. Name, surname, father, mother. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen! Our Father, Who art in Heaven. Hail Mary, Full of Grace. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked! Over and over again.
The Germans had checked the orphanage twice. The first time a Gestapo officer came and demanded that the children should cross themselves one by one. The second time he had a Polish helper who could probably better recognize the language errors. These birch rods helped, and I passed the test both times. The Germans had not repeated the visits anymore. Maybe because Father Grom never covered his anti-Semitic views and was known for them before the war?
After that, it was relatively peaceful.
After a year, Father Grom stopped waking me up at night but continued persecuting me. No matter what kind of work was to do, he always chose me. In religion classes, he rode roughshod on Jews as much as he could. There was no evil the Jews were not guilty of. But he never pointed at me. This I have to admit.
I was so stupid that, when I learned a little about the Holy Bible, I began to discuss with him, using my knowledge from the cheder, and the birch rods came in use again. For the blasphemy and disobedience.
When the war was over, one of my mother's relatives found me.
That is how I found myself in the States. I have never forgotten Father Grom.
After communism was abandoned, I went to Poland at the first opportunity. Father Grom was still alive then. He became an old man. But he hasn't changed a bit! I asked him why such an anti-Semite like him saved a Jewish child. He said, "I haven't saved any Jewish child, you fool! I rescued a human life! For this is what our Christian faith demands! Even for the sin of a lie!" And he hit me with Jewish perpetrators from the communistic regime Security forces!
I owe this man my life, but we didn't split up as best friends.
He died the following year.
But I come every year to visit his grave and say Hail Mary for him.