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The Narrow Bridge

The Narrow Bridge: Beyond the Holocaust

Isaac Neuman
Michael Palencia-Roth
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Narrow Bridge
    Book Description:

    As a boy studying Torah, Isaac Neuman learned to seek the spiritual lessons hidden in everyday life. Likewise, in this narrative of occupation and holocaust, he uncovers a core of human decency and spiritual strength that inhumanity, starvation, and even death failed to extinguish._x000B_Unlike many Holocaust memoirs that focus on physical suffering and endurance, The Narrow Bridge follows a spiritual journey. Neuman describes the world of Polish Jewry before and during the Holocaust, recreating the strong religious and secular personalities of his childhood and early youth in Zdunska Wola, Poland: the outcast butcher, Haskel Traskalawski; the savvy criminal-turned-entrepreneur Nochem Ellia; the trusted Dr. Lemberg, liaison to the German occupation government; and Neuman's beloved teacher, Reb Mendel. Through their stories, Neuman reveals the workings of a community tested to the limits of faith and human dignity. _x000B_With his brother Yossel, Neuman was transported to the Poznan area, first to the Yunikowo work camp in May 1941, then on to St. Martin's Cemetery camp, where they removed gold jewelry and fillings from exhumed corpses. A string of concentration camps followed, each more oppressive than the last: Fürstenfelde, Auschwitz, Fünfteichen, Gross Rosen, Mauthausen, Wels, and Ebensee. In the midst of these horrors, the brothers kept their feet on the "narrow bridge" of life by holding to their faith, their memories, and each other. In the end, only Isaac survived._x000B_The Narrow Bridge celebrates symbolic victories of faith over brute force. The execution of Zdunska Wola's Jewish spiritual and intellectual leaders is trumped by an act of breathtaking courage and conviction. A secret Passover Seder is cobbled together from hoarded bits of wax, piecemeal prayers, and matzoh baked in delousing ovens. A dying fellow inmate gives Neuman his warm coat as they both lie freezing on the ground._x000B_Such rituals of faith and acts of kindness, combined with boyhood memories and a sense of spiritual responsibility, sustained Neuman through the Holocaust and helped him to reconstruct his life after the war. His story is a powerful testimony to an unquenchable faith and a spirit tried by fire._x000B__x000B__x000B__x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09396-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Part 1: Before the Ghetto

    • ONE Cheder Years
      (pp. 3-18)

      Jews first came to Zdunska Wola in the mid-eighteenth century, and the first weavers came in 1816. My town thus became a manufacturing center, our factories subcontracting for larger ones in the nearby city of Lodz. Zdunska Wola was not one of the fabled cities of Polish Jewry: It was not Lublin or Kracow or Warsaw, or even Lodz. Although it did have a yeshiva, it was not a great talmudic academy. It was not the birthplace of the Ba’al Shem Tov or any other famous Hasidic masters. But, like many shtetls in Poland (shtetl is the Yiddish diminutive identifying...

    • TWO Reb Mendel
      (pp. 19-38)

      My religious education began at age three with Reb Arele. It continued in local cheders until 1934. That September Father sent me to the yeshiva in Kalisz. In August of 1935 I returned to Zdunska Wola for a year a half. Although I would also later study at the Rebbe’s Court in Zgierz in the spring of 1937 and at the prestigious Emek-halacha Yeshiva in Warsaw from September 1938 until August of 1939, it was during my eighteen months back home in 1935 and 1936 that I learned the most. It was then that I would study with a profound...

    • THREE The Gate of Tears
      (pp. 39-52)

      My mother’s mother was engaged at twelve, married at fourteen, and widowed by thirty. By that time she had ten children, five sons and five daughters. My memory of her begins when she was more than forty, which is, of course, ancient to a five-year-old boy. I was struck then by the sweetness of her singing voice, the thickness of her body, and how her reading glasses deadened her face. To me, she was simply Grandma. To others, however, she was Widow Masha Tyger, proprietress and person of substance. She owned a store, an apartment building with nine small apartments,...

  5. Part 2: In the Ghetto

    • FOUR Hanukkah in a Monastery
      (pp. 55-64)

      December 1940. We had heard nothing from my grandmother since she had been taken away. The ghetto now contained about eleven or twelve thousand people, two or three thousand of them Jews brought in from outlying towns. Reb Sender, his wife, and their two teenage daughters shared our two-bedroom apartment with my mother and father, my four sisters, my brother, and me. They slept in the kitchen, on the floor and on a cot they had brought with them and rolled out at night when they created a private space by putting up a sheet between the two families. We...

    • FIVE The Pact
      (pp. 65-71)

      My days in the monastery in December of 1940 were my only reprieve that winter. In the ghetto we were monitored more closely by the Germans than we had been before. It became ever more difficult for Guitel and Esther to trade for extra food or to buy it from gentile merchants and smuggle it back home. My brother Yossel and I were often rounded up by German troops and by the SS looking for men to do manual labor on this or that job. After being forced to work like this several times, I decided to “volunteer.” One day,...

    • SIX Purim Revenge
      (pp. 72-82)

      After deportation I soon lost touch with what was happening in the ghetto of my hometown. Subsequent transports to the labor camps around Poznan, where Yossel and I lived until August 1943, brought news infrequently. It was only after the war that I found out what had happened to some of my friends and family and to some of our town’s most prominent citizens. I have mused often on the lives and fates of three of those citizens: Nochem Ellia Zilberberg, whose links to Zdunska Wola’s underworld I viewed as exotic and dangerous; Shlomo Zelichowski, whose piety and gentleness always...

    • SEVEN Shlomo’s Last Prayer
      (pp. 83-94)

      In many ways no one could be more different from Nochem Ellia Zilberberg than Shlomo Zelichowski. He dressed as a Hasid, with an elegant black morning coat that went halfway down his calf and was slit in the back. He was always cheerful, and his eyes radiated kindness. Soft-spoken and gentle, pious and studious, he was for other boys what Reb Mendel was for me—a teacher and role model. He lived in Pabianice, which lay between Zdunska Wola and Lodz, but after marrying the daughter of Benjamin Rudal he came to our town often. When the Germans occupied Poland,...

    • EIGHT The Judenälteste of Zdunska Wola
      (pp. 95-106)

      My brother Yossel and I speculated in Yunikowo, our first work camp, about what Dr. Yakov Lemberg must have been thinking that May morning in 1941 when, as the physician to the ghetto and as Judenälteste, he first selected us and then gave us and six hundred other men physical examinations, pronouncing us fit enough to be deported. Yossel remained angry at Doctor Lemberg for months, especially because the sons of three of Lemberg’s friends were not among the six hundred. I was more conflicted about him and more intrigued by the mixture of personal qualities of mind and spirit...

  6. Part 3: In the Camps

    • NINE My Brother’s Keeper, Part 1
      (pp. 109-122)

      After three days and nights in that textile factory in Zdunska Wola, Yossel and I, along with six hundred other young men, were herded onto a train. Traveling slowly almost two hundred kilometers to the northeast, it eventually stopped at Poznan, where between twenty and twenty-five labor camps would be constructed. Yossel and I were to work in three: one was Yunikowo, another was the cemetery camp of St. Martin’s, and the third was called Fürstenfelde (Princely Fields), a romantic name for a horrible place.

      Leaving the train, we were ordered to form rows of five abreast and march ten...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • TEN Unleavened Bread
      (pp. 123-136)

      One February evening in 1943, after the final roll call of the day, Srulik Rosenfeld asked about fifteen of the fifty inmates of our barracks to meet with him quietly. Our group of fifty had been separated out from Yunikowo, and we now constituted an isolated and largely self-sufficient camp on the grounds of St. Martin’s Cemetery. Yossel, as always, was skeptical of Srulik’s motives. Why, he wondered to me, would Srulik ask for such a meeting? He never had before. Was he going to tell us that we were being transferred? Did he have news of our families in...

    • ELEVEN My Brother’s Keeper, Part 2
      (pp. 137-152)

      Jakob Sittner was one of the best bakers in Zdunska-Wola, famous for the joy with which he baked the cholent for our Sabbath meal. Every Sabbath around noon, Yossel and I would be sent to his bakery. Returning home, walking through the streets, we saw other boys and girls who had been sent on similar errands, and the air of Zdunska Wola was redolent with the smell of hot cholent. At four-foot-seven, Sittner was so small as to be almost a dwarf. And yet that was not how people thought of him, for he had a reputation for kindness, generosity,...

  7. Part 4: Legacies

    • TWELVE Mottl’s Torah
      (pp. 155-161)

      When I first met Mottl Chudi in the mid-1930s, I had no idea that someday his work as an artist and calligrapher would find a home in a synagogue in Israel or be sought after by a well-known museum.

      I never anticipated the many roads down which his artistic passion and talent would take him. I only knew I was fascinated by him. Although only five years separated us, that is a lifetime to a teenager, and Mottl seemed to be so mature and sophisticated. I admired his independence. Even in the 1930s, he no longer had side-curls and no...

    • THIRTEEN Rachel
      (pp. 162-172)

      In 1935 the autocratic yet benevolent ruler of Poland, Marshall Josef Pilsudski, died. The whole country went into deep mourning, but those who mourned his loss the most may have been the Jews. Marshall Pilsudski was very friendly to us, and he also tightly controled radicals from both the right and the left. Fear and trembling seized the Jewish leadership because none of the rumored successors was considered sympathetic to minorities. Some candidates were even openly anti-Semitic. Poland’s economic hardships fueled anti-Semitic propaganda and attacks on Jewish communities. The anti-Semitic press singled out prominent manufacturers and community leaders. Everyone in...

    • FOURTEEN Yom Hashoah
      (pp. 173-186)

      “Remember me,” Shmuel had said on the night he died at the entrance to Mauthausen on that frigid night in 1945, “remember us.” But any thoughts of remembering or any sense that my memory might be significant were far from my mind in the summer of 1945. I was too ill. When American soldiers liberated me that May, I weighed perhaps seventy-five pounds. Tuberculosis racked my body. Years of starvation and abuse had given rise as well to other ailments. One night, as I learned from the nurse the next morning, I cried out in what the doctors thought was...

  8. Afterword
    (pp. 187-190)

    As far as memory, intention, and research permit, this book is true. Everything is based either on firsthand experience or on the verbal accounts of people who were there, on other written eyewitness accounts, and on the historical record.

    Some of the details stem from Isaac Neuman’s conversations with other survivors after the war but before work onThe Narrow Bridge began.That is the case especially for Joseph Levitt and Moischele Shor, known as Joe and Morrie after coming to America, who were both deported from Zdunska Wola some time after May 1941. Both were among the hundred men...

  9. Glossary
    (pp. 191-196)
  10. Index
    (pp. 197-202)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 203-206)