David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

“Jew, Go Back to the Grave!” — A Parable

An abridged tale from Yaffa Eliach’s  Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust:

As Ostrovakas and his people were aiming their guns, Zvi fell into the grave a split second before the volley of fire hit him.

He felt the bodies piling up on top of him and covering him. He felt the streams of blood around him and the trembling pile of dying bodies moving beneath him.

It became cold and dark. The shooting died down above him. Zvi made his way from under the bodies, out of the mass grave into the cold, dead night. In the distance, Zvi could hear Ostrovakas and his people singing and drinking, celebrating their great accomplishment. After 80o years, on September 26, 1941, Eisysky was Judenfrei.

At the far end of the cemetery, in the direction of the huge church, were a few Christian homes. Zvi knew them all. Naked, covered with blood, he knocked on the first door. The door opened. A peasant was holding a lamp which he had looted earlier in the day from a Jewish home. “Please let me in,” Zvi pleaded. The peasant lifted the lamp and examined the boy closely. “Jew, go back to the grave where you belong!” he shouted at Zvi and slammed the door in his face. Zvi knocked on other doors, but the response was the same.

Near the forest lived a widow whom Zvi knew too. He decided to knock on her door. The old widow opened the door. She was holding in her hand a small, burning piece of wood. ” Let me in!” begged Zvi. “Jew, go back to the grave at the old cemetery!” She chased Zvi away with the burning piece of wood as if exorcising an evil spirit, a dybbuk.

“I am your Lord, Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me—the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in,” said Zvi Michalowsky. The widow crossed herself and fell at his blood-stained feet. “Boze moj, Boze moj (my God, my God),” she kept crossing herself and praying. The door was opened.

Zvi walked in. He promised her that he would spare from damnation both her family and her, but only if she would keep his visit a secret for three days and three nights and not reveal it to a living soul, not even the priest. She gave Zvi food and clothing and warm water to wash himself. Before leaving the house, he once more reminded her that the Lord’s visit must remain a secret, because of His special mission on earth.

Dressed in a farmer’s clothing, with a supply of food for a few days, Zvi made his way to the nearby forest. Thus, the Jewish partisan movement was born in the vicinity of Eisysky.

Zvi Michalowski as told to Eliach

This story has been quoted in a number of places, sometimes as fact, sometimes as folklore. It so perfectly displays the structure of parable (and an ambiguous parable, no less) that it commands attention and memory.

Is it really what happened? Eliach expresses doubt about some of the stories while having confirmed the unlikely truths of others, and at least a couple of the stories rely on such nonsensical coincidences that they seem to have come straight out of folklore.

This one lands somewhere in the middle. The outlines of the tale are verifiable and verified. As for the heart of the tale, the encounter with the widow: well, it’s one hell of a story. Whether it’s true or a brilliant embellishment, it’s a parable and will live on as such.

(Bizarrely, a very, very similarly worded account was published without attribution in Robert Rietti’s A Rose for Reubenthough he does thank Eliach in the foreword. Did he meet Michalowski too? Or is the tale now common property?)


  1. The circumstances are utterly different and I don’t think the story is similar enough to make a claim about any sort of genesis, but this reminds me a great deal of Balzac’s Colonel Chabert which is a chilling novel in its own right.

  2. This is the truth, I’ve heard it uttered from his lips. My uncle was a great man and these words should resonate with you forever as it has for me.

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