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The Galloping Ghost

The Galloping Ghost

The strange equine afterlife of a Holocaust hero.

Associate Editor

Long before Auschwitz was associated with crematoria it was associated with the afterlife. Long before the Shoah, it was believed even elsewhere in Central Europe that “anyone who merited to be buried [in the Jewish cemetery there] would not suffer travails at the time of resurrection.”

It’s been said that the Great Awakening of Jews around the world in the 1960s was a hint that the first post-war generation might be a gilgul (reincarnation) of the Six Million. Tens of thousands of babies have been named after relatives killed in Auschwitz. But what of Roza Robota, a young Jewish woman, killed before she could have children, sent to the gallows for her pivotal role in the Auschwitz rebellion of 1944? Who remembers?

The mystics say that there have been animal-human reincarnations, with speculations about Balaam’s Donkey as one equine that made the transition. And while I hesitate to speak of spiritual migrations with certainty, suffice it to say that on April 6, 1995 a baby horse was born, a dark bay filly named Roza Robata (the last name officially misspelled because of clerical error). She was born to royalty, the family of Triple Crown winner Native Dancer (“the Grey Ghost”), and Alydar, the only thoroughbred to finish second in all three Triple Crown races. Her stepsister, Maggie Slew, is the daughter of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Roza’s owner, Fletcher Clement, a non-Jewish Vietnam Veteran from Arkansas, explained to reporters at the time that he named the horse Roza Robata because “it would be nice to honor this courageous lady,” from the uprising that he heard about after visiting Auschwitz.

When Roza raced in New York at Belmont Park (winning $250,000 in the prestigious Grade 1 Hempstead Handicap), the name — a constant curiosity — was explained yet again. The New York Times printed a small item about the “young Polish woman … who bravely lost her life.” The tale of Roza Robota, wrote the Times, “is retold each time the racehorse runs, even if it’s heard only within racing circles.” The horse “has displayed a remarkable energy and toughness.”

The mare retired in 2000 after fracturing her knee even while finishing third in the Three Chimneys Spinster stakes. In 34 starts she earned $732,780. Tari Williams, of Williams Racing Stables in Kentucky, where Roza was trained, emailed us that Roza (now 19), was sold for $550,000 to Katsumi Yoshida of Northern Farms in Hokkaido, Japan, one of the more successful racehorse owners in Asia.

In the 1930s, the “Jewish” horses in Ciechanov, Poland (Roza Robota’s hometown), never retired, pulling wagons and plows every day but Shabbos. Born in 1921, not much remains of her childhood, except the willow overhanging the stream where everyone went for Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah, and a gypsy circus still occasionally rolls into town with colorful wooden wagons. Roustabouts still put up a one-ring tent, and an acrobatic lady, in a faded sequined dress, still gallops around the ring atop a white horse.

In that shtetl of 8,000, Tuesdays and Fridays were market days until the sun went down. “Hundreds of peasants and farmers,” says the Ciechanov Yizkor Book, set up tables and stalls selling “clothing, butter, eggs, religious objects and necessities that were strange to us. … The world came alive at these encounters.” People came and went, but the conversations never ended. A nearby cellar was the meeting place for Hashomer Hatzair, the Zionist youth group, where Roza Robota (she increasingly preferred being called by her Hebrew name, Shoshana), was a member. The Yizkor Book, compiled by survivors after the war, recalled how Roza’s group “started with scouting and dreams around campfires, [dreaming of building the] Jewish nation in its homeland.”

As the survivors recalled, “There was a deep feeling of Yiddishkeit in our shtetl… . No sins of the fathers shamed the youth.”

In 1935, Roza and her friends celebrated the birthday of Mendele Mocher Sforim, the “zayde” of Yiddish literature, and planted trees in Israel in his honor. And Roza’s group, “on the yahrzeit of Herzl, the twentieth day of Tammuz,” would remember his promise, “If you want it, it is not a dream.” In Ciechanov, says the Yizkor Book, “all were united under the blue and white flag.” They imagined the Polish forests to be “the forests of Mishmar HaEmek for which we collected penny after penny to redeem the Land.”

On Friday evenings, “Reb Yosele sets out into the Jewish streets with his call; ‘Yidn, it’s getting late, Shabbos, Shabbos is approaching, bentch licht, light candles!’ There is quite a stir. Customers are hurried out of the shops and everyone rushes.” Soon, after the davening, people went home, humming a happy niggun.

On Shabbos morning, with the sky still dark, one could hear the sounds of Psalms being chanted. In the home of Shaya Robota, her father, “there was the [Yud Lamed] Peretz library,” attracting a congregation of artists and dreamers. Says the Yizkor Book, “That’s how Jewish Ciechanov lived until the German murderers came.”

A resistance, including Roza, formed almost immediately, but an uprising never coalesced. Survivors remember, “Roza was always going around enraged because she couldn’t avenge the suffering of the Jews.” Deported to Auschwitz, Roza joined the resistance there, as well.

She worked sorting the personal belongings of the dead, in a room adjacent to the crematoria. She made contact with the sonderkommando, the Jews working in the crematoria. She made contact with Jewish women, some trusted friends from Ciechanov, who worked in a camp factory that manufactured gunpowder and ammunition.

Roza passed the explosives to the sonderkommando. For one and a half years, the explosives were hid in the dead bodies that passed away in the night, bodies that were then transported in wagons pulled by the sonderkommando.

One Shabbos morning, Oct. 7, 1944, the underground learned that many of the sonderkommando would be liquidated. The doomed prisoners, who knew all too well about the gas and ovens, decided to resist. According to the “Auschwitz Chronicle,” a day-by-day archive, during a mid-day huddle to coordinate the resistance, the plan was discovered by a non-Jewish prisoner who threatened to tell the guards. The Jews killed that prisoner on the spot, and attacked an approaching SS guard-unit with axes, stones, and hammers. Homemade grenades were thrown. Crematoria IV was set aflame. The sonderkommando in an adjacent crematoria, hearing the explosions, pushed two Nazis into ovens meant for Jews. Some prisoners escaped to a barn, before being captured. The revolt was crushed, but Crematoria IV was too damaged to ever be used again.

Three days later, Roza was arrested, tortured and interrogated for weeks. Noah Zabludowicz, a friend from the Ciechanov-Auschwitz underground, managed to find her in the notorious Block 11 torture cell. He later wrote, she lay in the dark “like a heap of rags … her body was wounded [and bloody] from beatings. … She recalled the shtetl, her parents, friends, the surroundings in which she lived, hoped and dreamed of a better future. And now all [seemed] finished. The Jewish people are wiped out. [She said] ‘Did [they] really succeed in annihilating our people … or are Jewish youth alive somewhere?’” Roza recalled learning Ezekiel, wrote Noah, and as if “through a dream the [prophet’s] words spring from her: ‘Will these bones live?’” And, Noah continued, “she answered herself with Ezekiel’s words: ‘Yes, I will restore you, put flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath into you and you will come alive. See, I open your graves and will raise you, my people, from the grave and bring you to the Land of Israel.’ She added, ‘My suffering was worth it, just as long as my dear people will continue to exist.’ I tried to comfort her, but she wouldn’t hear of it: ‘I knew what I did and what I can expect.’” Roza gave him a message for her comrades: “Hazak V’Amatz (be strong and have courage)!”

On Saturday night, Jan. 6, 1945 (Tevet 22, if anyone wants to say Kaddish or light a candle), just three weeks before the camp was liberated, Roza and her three accomplices, Ala Gertner, Regina Szafirsztajn and Estera Wajcblum, were hanged in the women’s camp. Their last words were cries for revenge, then the singing of Hatikvah.

And in Japan, all these years later, Roza Robata (now her Japanese owners are asked about her name), gave birth to a son who has finished in the money twice in nine races. The new owners, who named the young horse, surely know that this colt has both pedigree and a legacy. The colt’s name?

Roza’s Courage.

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