I slumped to my knees and broke into
sobs. I couldn't walk up. Now now, not ever. I wanted to remember it
as I had left it five long yean ago. I was aware, in a dim faint
memory, of the past. How many times I had run up those steps to join
my family at meals. Now only pain existed. Sobs choked me. It seemed
I could weep an ocean full.
These recollections are not complete.
Many things happened between ... things which left their trace in my
memory ...too many, of which I have no strength to write.
I have invented nothing.
THE RIVER PROSNA flowed gently through
the city. A colorful panorama of. million flowers grew on the
piazzas, in the park, in the green valleys. Dozens of peacocks took
their daily walk to show off their feathers. Like a whisper, the
water swished on the river banks. The streets were clean and so
familiar. My dear home town, the city of Kalisz in the state of
Pozen in Poland.
There were always peddlers in the
streets. Peddlers buying old rags and empty bottles. Men with wooden
cases of glass on their backs, looking for jobs to fix broken
windows. They yelled from morning to sundown.
"Szmaty Kupuje! Buying old rags - old bottles - old rags!" And his
competitor, trying to out scream him.
"I'm fixing windows! Fixing windows!"
There were big markets with hundreds of
tables, covered with fresh fruits and vegetables, brought in by the
farmers. Among the red radishes and rhubarb, apples, cherries,
cauliflower, and cabbage, the green leaves seemed to grow on the
Clucking hens and quacking ducks
squawked noisy protests for being locked in their cages on market
day, until a shrewd shopper would lift one out and blow its
tail-feathers to see how much was fat and how much was feather.
In the main streets, the stores boasted
beautiful window displays, but grocery stores were always on the
side streets. They were dark and narrow shops, with no shelves or
cans. The big potato sacks of flour, sugar, coffee, barley, and rice
were lined up along the sides of the walls. In the back of. long
wooden counter, the grocer, who was covered with a mixture of flour
and sugar, weighed our quarter pound of rice in a little paper bag.
Frankel owned the big store. Your could
smell his pickles and herring and sauerkraut and smoked fish for
blocks. The women shoppers used to pinch every herring in the barrel
to see which was the fattest. Frankel's floor was always wet with
Across the street, the rich people
bought corned beef and salami at Radomski's. There, the draped
strings of wieners in the window attracted all the school children,
who came to buy a wiener with sauerkraut and mustard for ten
In Kalisz there were two synagogues and many churches, a public
school, a high school, a business academy, and parochial schools.
On the noisy weekends' we could hear the trotting of the droshkys,
the only transportation in the city. While the horse-and-buggies
clopped along on cement streets, the whistles from the lace
factories blasted a duet, and
filled the air with smoke and smell.
On Saturday, the Jewish stores closed and Kalisz quieted a little
for Shabbat. The Jewish businessmen and shopkeepers and laborers
paraded around in their best clothes, and little boys with sidelocks
went to synagogue with their fathers.
The most silent day of the week was
Sunday. Soft church bells chimed through a city whose stores, both
Jewish and gentile, had closed for the day. Quiet peace. Late in the
afternoon, Polish family groups and clubs sang and
polka, the mazurks, and the oberek. That day, the Poles paraded, as
Jews had done the day before. Usually we could see a Pole or two,
apart from the crowd, enjoying his week's pay worth of vodka in the
It was a busy life. People were rich or poor. People had everyday
worries. They were families with children and hopes for them.
We were in our family: Mom, Daddy, my
sisters Guta and Karola, myself and my brother, Aron.
Guta, the eldest, got respect from the
rest of us. It was she, with Karola, who was a comrade, as well as a
daughter, to Mom.
In the shadow of my beautiful sister, Karola, I always felt ugly.
Karola was the pride of the family. Her big, black eyes were almost
oriental, slanting up toward her rich black hair. By contrast, her
complexion was creamy white, displaying a beautiful tiny nose that
slanted up, too.
Aron was the youngest of all of us.
Finally, the anticipated son. As the baby, and the only boy, Aron
always got most of the attention.
And me...all covered with freckles, I had neither Karola's beauty
nor Guta's maturity. After two girls, they had expected me to be a
boy, so I was a disappointment there, too. Mom always said maybe for
a boy I wouldn't be so bad looking. I was proud only of my hands and
long, artistic fingers that later would be important so many times.
I could not dwell on my shortcomings for long, though. At the age of
four, I was sent to Mrs. Krasucka's kindergarten. All the children
there were from well-to-do families. We chased the hoop and played
ring-around-the-roise in a room that looked like a fairy tale. The
blocks and bicycles and bats and dolls were so many, that even we
could never hope to have so many ourselves. Mrs. Krasucka's was the
last school where boys and girls were together in my classes.
When I was five, I was sent to Hawaceles.
How I remember the first day! I gripped my father's hand tightly. I
was so proud to walk through the streets with him.
Everybody knew my father. He held high
positions in every charity organization in Kalisz, and he was
president of this private school for girls.
Father wasn't tall, but he looked
distinguished because of the long, black silky beard and dark fiery
eyes that seemed to hint the wisdom inside. Everyone came to Daddy
for advice on family problems or business ventures. How proud I was
to walk with him, or see him on the school stage, making a speech on
national holidays, or watch him on the bima at schul!
At Hawaceles, school was no longer a
room full of toys. Classes and hours flowed into one another with a
steady, secure sameness.
The clearest memory now is a prayer we said every morning.
I imagine that the Holy One stands
front of me
He sees everything I do He hears everything
And He writes it all down in a big book
Throughout my childhood, there were
always prayers. There was a prayer before eating bread, drinking
water, or a bedtime prayer, checked on by Daddy to make sure we
hadn't forgotten. Among them all, I wonder why I remember the prayer
After classes, Daddy's store was a good
place. As long as I can remember, Daddy was in the leather business
- soft leathers for shoes. How I loved the smell of the leather and
the touch of the soft grain! There were so many colors, but I was
fascinated especially by the silver and gold. I could picture
perfectly the shoes of Cinderella!
The lines of shelves from the floor to
the ceiling were loaded with beautiful, expensive skins. On a slow
day, my friends and I used to climb up into the back shelves to play
hide and seek. I wasn't allowed to bring more than one at a time, so
Zosia, PoIa, Edzia and Fela took turns coming to the store and to
Dear, good home. Daddy was very
orthodox, and the Jewish tradition was the most important part of
our family life. Most important was the Sabbath .
Although, as far as I can remember, we
always had a maid, and, once a week, a laundress. Cooking for the
Sabbath was Mom's department, because she was so strict about her
kosher kitchen. Thursday morning Mom started the baking and cooking
for the Sabbath. Smells of homemade noodles, gefilte fish, chalos
with braided tops, coffee cake, blueberry tarts from leftover cookie
dough melded together, spreading their warm aroma all through the
After racing back from school on Friday,
I loved to see our table prepared for the traditional dinner. The
big, white tablecloth held a bottle of red wine and a silver wine
goblet for the kiddish. There were always extra chairs at our table,
waiting for Daddy to surprise Mom with some special guests. Boys
away from home, attending the Yeshiva, Jewish soldiers, or some poor
relative joined in our Sabbath feast. Each sat, as we did, on the
dining room chairs. Only Father's chair, at the head of the table,
had too thick, carved arms.
Since were not permitted to eat bread on
Saturday, that next morning was the time for tasting all Mom's
goodies - butter cakes and cookies, and sweet, rich pastries .
Saturday afternoon, Daddy came back from
the synagogue and settled into his chair in the living room, still
engrossed in the Talmudic studies. Like the difference in the chairs
at the dinner table, there was an honor about Father's chair here,
too. Though I often sat with Daddy on Saturdays, never did I dare
sit alone in his chair, nor did anyone else, as a symbol of respect.
Instead, I loved to climb up on Daddy's lap and beg him for a story.
Though I always interrupted his studies
this way, I think he expected it, b he always had a lesson, a
beautiful Bible story. I caressed his beard, enraptured by the
melody of his steady Yiddish intonation. Daddy always ended his
stories the same way. "Be a good girl. Always remember you are a
Jew. Be proud of it. Never lie, it's just as bad as stealing. And
don't offend anybody, its a crime."
In those next years, I was to remember
his words often, turning them over, knowing their irony. But on
those Saturdays, I just waited while he spoke them. Then he pinched
my cheek and chased me out of the room with his hand.
On weekdays, after school, there were
walks and dreams, thousands of dreams. I was brought up in a world
of girls, and I knew that the first boy I met would be the boy I
I spend evenings near the window,
looking out into the twilight. It was so much fun to watch people
passing by the house. Especially boys. I watched the handsome ones
and dreamed about a Prince Charming. And when I couldn't tell Mom or
Daddy how I felt, I used to write poems.
There were so many things I couldn't
talk to Mom about. Yet my mother was a wonderful person. Her
youthful sense of humor that made her so close to Karola and Guta,
often masked her worries. But then, Mom worried about everybody's
business. Poor relatives and rich ones, neighbor's daughters who
weren't married, or neighbors' married daughters who might not be
happy - they were all Mom's concern. Like Karola and Guta, all the
neighbors found a warm friend in Mom.
But in her closeness to my sisters and
the rest of Kalisz, Mom's warmth seemed to exclude me. I was always
jealous. I wanted her attention so much. I loved her so dearly, but
there was so little time left from her busy schedule.
It was wonderful to be sick. Those were the days I was taken out of
the maid's care, and had Mom all to myself. She would sit for hours
by my bed and read stories to me. She would feed me every Jewish
medication - chicken broth. Maybe it was a good medication that Old
European way, for the doctor seldom visited our house. She enveloped
me with affection, and I was joyously happy. I loved the tenderness
in her eyes and the soft touch of her hands. So I tried to stay sick
for a very long time .
Life at home was sweet. How tragic it is
to appreciate things only after they are gone.
I can still see clearly the beautiful
clean rooms in our house. My room's creamy walls bordered a big,
free space for my brother and me. The wooden sliding doors on our
closets opened a regimented row of crisp, clean clothes that hung on
Our dining room was a grand place. Heavy
gold drapes hung on the windows. A massive china closet held rows
and rows of beautiful crystal and silver one side, and shelves of
holy books and old leather volumes on the other. Though my parents'
deep red mahogany furniture and my sisters' bedroom of pale
water-green were exquisite, the real treasure was the delicious
storage room. It was there so many memories were born.
It was a busy summer. Mom had brought
cherries and grapes, pears, cucumbers, and berries in huge baskets
at the market. Although she shooed me out of the storage room, I
stayed long enough to snitch some of the cherries our maid was
pitting. Hours later, from those great boiling kettles on the stove,
came preserves to put in bottles to stack alongside the pickles and
pears. And visnak, the cherry syrup that was almost the national
summer drink of Poland. Always, visnak, ready to serve our guests.
How good are the times when parents do
the worrying and life goes by as though nothing could destroy it -
when home gives you warm shelter and parents protect you.
But this was the year when my life turned to horror!
IN 1938, there was constant talk about
the threat of war. Hitler spoke, and Austria was taken
...Czechoslovakia was surrounded. And here I lost track of weeks,
days, months ... time was endless ... life, fearful. The sky turned
red for a week, and Poles knew it was a sign of war. Gdansk was
taken ... then the first bomb. And from that time on, every memory
is red and ugly.
Hitler's anti-Jewish laws followed quickly. Jews must wear a star,
hand in their bikes, furs, silver. Obey or be killed.
I stopped seeing my friends. People were
afraid to go out. One by one, the Jewish stores closed. We met only
within the safety of a neighbor's home. Desperately, we tried to
plan an escape. Those were terrible nights.
Mom and my sisters were sewing heavy
linen rucksacks. We packed a few things in case we got the chance to
run away. Mom put a silver zloty, food money, over each button, and
sewed cloth over it.
In the quiet night, we heard bullets. I
crawled into Mom's bed, but I was afraid to close my eyes.
We still had beds, but we couldn't
sleep; a storage room full of food and no appetite. We had no money,
and no way to spend it. We watched the outside change through the
windows, and listened to the sounds of boots. Coming and going.
Never stopping. They were heard from the streets. The feet of the
Gestapo. The footsteps destined to come for all of us.
And through the windows we could see groups of Jews being dragged
away by the police. Mothers and sobbing children, invalids ...
familiar faces ...dear, dear neighbors and relatives. We heard them
plead for mercy and help. Then a cry. And after it, like an echo,
the cry of a murdered child and the wail of a desperate parent ...
for hours and hours.
Families began to separate. They talked about work camps. Parents
clung to their little ones. They vowed that not even approaching
death would separate them. Another night, another day. I don't know
We pecked rucksacks; we waited out turn. Mom cried. I wonder how
much faith in God helped. Father still sat in his favorite chair,
reading the Talmud. His lips moved in continuous prayer.
"Just have faith," he said. "God will help us."
But God didn't. It was three o'clock in the morning when we heard
the boots. "Juden out!" Cut like a knife into us.
It was the last time I saw my house. They took us into a big church,
hundreds of us. Each family had a square of cement floor to live on.
We shared among us the little food we had taken. We used our
rucksacks for pillows and tried to sleep through the wails of the
After a few days, they took small groups out. We all had the same
questions. Who next? To where?
Some Polish friends helped us to run away. We managed to get out to
their horse and buggy, to start our journey to nowhere.
Outside the city. a German soldier stopped us. We knew he'd shoot at
least one of us. Instead he smirked, snarling the Nazi prophecy:
"Where do run to, Jew? 'Wherever you go, we'll get you."
Our buggy rattled against the dark silence. Above us, the great
grove of stars was shelter. I sat close to Mom, shivering from the
cold. I wanted to go home again.
The side roads we traveled were rough and stony. None of them
offered what we left behind.
After a few days we arrived in the city of Lodz, one of the biggest
industrial cities in Poland. My uncle lived there. Around the
section where the Jews were concentrated, the Germans were putting
up the first wires of the ghetto. The streets were crowded with
thousands of Jews. They lived in stairways and basements, filthy
We were comfortable in my wealthy uncle's house. While we still had
food and shelter, we couldn't believe the talk of war camps and
One morning a German soldier walked into my uncle's house. He said
he needed a few girls to clean floors in the high school. He said it
calmly. He picked me. It was the first time I was taken from my
Arriving at the school, I saw a group of girls, scared, like me. We
were assigned to different rooms. I never scrubbed a floor. That
didn't matter, as long as they sent me back to my family again. The
floor I was assigned was near the door of a big kitchen. It was
there I first understood the Jewish tragedy.
In an old wooden chair, an old Jew with a long white beard sat.
Three German soldiers were cutting his beard with kitchen knives.
Big pieces of beard and skin fell to the floor, and blood ran down
the old man's shirt. Oh God! In such a bitter briefness of life, why
should this happen? The whiteness of his face had a touch of
holiness. His hands were tied to a chair and he gasped with pain. I
bit my lips so hard together, that I could feel the taste of my own
blood. I was aware of the soldier watching me. Automatically, my
hand scrubbed the floor. This was the reason he put me so close to
the kitchen! No, I won't look up! The fear drove me almost insane.
Like an echo, I could hear the Jew pray, "Shma Yisrael, Adonoy
elohenu, Adonoy ehod." The prayer of a dying man, "Hear 0 Israel,
the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
I saw a drop of blood on the floor in front of me. Blood from my own
lips. I was nauseated. I wiped it away, but I saw blood everywhere.
The floor was an ocean of blood. Even the water in the bucket ...
Shma Yisrael ... Oh, God, help me. It was cruel. We were conquered,
destroyed. Like leprosy, death was spreading, and the terrible fear
crept with it. The floor was washed in a few hours of work - not
really hours. It had been a lifetime. I was old and empty now. I
stood up. My legs were stiff, as though they did not belong to me.
"Out! Out!" screamed the German soldier, pointing to the door. I
walked out, still hearing the sadistic laughter. It rained slowly
outside. It washed my face, with my tears, and left a bitter taste.
My body was covered with cold sweat. I could still see the mortal
spasm of the old man's face, and the blood dripping down his shirt.
And his half-dead lips repeated, "Shma ... " I was haunted by it. I
started to run ...faster ...faster ...
My whole family was at the door, waiting for me. I pushed through
them, madly, ran to the bedroom. I threw myself onto the bed, and
lay there shaking and sobbing.
I don't know how much time went by. I felt Mom's hand caressing my
hair. I fell into her arms. We didn't say anything. She didn't
question me. Perhaps she knew, but I could not tell her. I couldn't
In the night, that scene was a black nightmare. Dreams, dreams,
dreams of terror. And days of fear.
We stayed in Lodz for a few weeks. Things changed from bad to worse.
They took people out in trains from the ghetto, and more crowded
into the city.
The hospitals were full. There weren't
enough medical supplies to go around. People ran from one ghetto
into another, but every ghetto was the same: hunger and despair.
For hours I walked through the ghetto
streets. There was no threat of German soldiers there. They had left
the ghettos completely. I was confused, broken, homesick. I had an
awful desire to return to my childhood. I loved all the things I had
lost, those things I hadn't known how to value. Most haunting of
all, the warm, beautiful tradition of holidays in my home. And so I
wandered through the streets, hating the loneliness and fearing the
night. The night would cover the streets and make me look for
shelter. When that came, I finally stopped walking. I crept into bed
and remembered. Through the lonely night I remembered the joyous
days of Passover at home and I yearned again for the feast of the
There were many people gathered at our
Seder table. Our silver goblets bordered the table, surrounding the
candelabra and catching its reflections. The seven candles threw a
gold light on the whiteness of the cloth. The matzos were covered
with a silk white cover, embroidered in gold and blue. Father wore a
white vestment, the kittel, reminiscent of Aaron and his sons. It
was the garment of purity and burial - to remind us in our feast
that as God gives, so does he take away.
We joined in songs and prayers at
Paesach - guests, strangers and family alike. As far as I can
remember, there was never an empty chair at Seder.
Finally, almost at dawn, Father would
close with the Jews' universal prayer, "May we all be in Jerusalem
together next year."
The next day, every Jewish child in
Poland wore his new Paesach shoes and clothes.
Only nights permitted dreaming about
this past. In the daylight, ghetto scenes brought back reality. The
past was gone. It was far away. There were no holiday celebrations
at my uncle's house. The food supply was getting scarce. Besides the
six of us, and my uncle's family of eight, relatives and strangers
came from all over to live with us. Often we had forty at the table.
The water that we boiled potatoes in was put out on the doorstep to
provide a meal for a hungry stranger that might pass by. And we
realized we could not all stay.
The day we left for Belchatov, Grandma
came with us. Arriving in that little city, we were lucky to find a
little kitchen, deserted by other Jews. The seven of us lived there
during a terribly cold winter. We had no heat. The temperature used
to go down below zero. The ice on the walls was three inches thick.
What little coal we could buy, we had to use for cooking. But
Belchatov had no ghetto, and Mommy still managed to bring some food
I had my first encounter with boys in
Belchatov. All my friends seemed so experienced already, but
everything was new to me. I went to little parties and learned how
to dance. Boys told me I was pretty. That surprised me, and I
thought that all my freckles must have disappeared at once. I kept
looking at myself in the mirror, thinking that maybe in spite of
what Mommy said, I wasn't so bad looking for a girl, either.
When the German soldiers loaded the
first train of Jews in Belchatov, we knew it was time to run again.
My parents chose Warsaw this time.
Again, in the horse and buggy, we found ourselves on an empty road.
Grandma had gone back to Lodz because she was too old to travel.
Daddy was covered with a wool blanket to hide his Semitic face.
Mommy, who looked Irish, sat in front with the driver, in case we
had German company on the road. Nights were worse than daylight.
Then, every tree's shadow looked like a German soldier crouching and
waiting to spring.
There were others like us on the road.
We pitied the little ones who could not understand; who demanded
food. We did not expect help.
It was forbidden to help a Jew. Babies
were born, and clung to their mother's dry breasts. Women were dying
in labor. Everybody was running. We did not know where.
The only place to go was another ghetto.
We could get in there, but we couldn't get out. And between those
fortress walls, we knew we would find only wrong and suffering.
I was cold and hungry. The little supply of food we had taken was
gone. We huddled together to keep warm. The days on the road were an
eternity. Above us, unmoving, dark clouds; and around us, the
darkness of the night.
Halfway to Warsaw, we decided to rest
overnight in a small town. We found out from some of the Poles that
there were Jews still living there ... so we knocked at the door
they showed us, and were greeted by Mrs. Tannenbaum, from Kalisz.
That night we shared with the six
Tannenhaums the beds and food. I was so happy to see Paula. She was
a year younger than I, and she was very pretty. She looked like a
German, and later, that, along with her brightness, was to save her
life. In the morning we had to leave again another remnant of the
It was still hours to Warsaw when he
heard the trotting of horses from a German patrol. Mommy instructed
our driver to turn off the road. We drove into an inconspicuous,
narrow space between two pine trees, thinking that the trees would
hide us. We heard the hoofs coming louder and then, more clearly,
the guttural sounds of the German soldiers talking.
I had long been obsessed with the sound
and feel of death. Now I grabbed at Daddy's arm with a frenzied
grip. Swept into a horrid panic, I stared at the face of the German
soldier who had found us.
Mommy trembled, "Yes."
Then the search for money began. If they found it, we knew they
would surely kill us all. As they felt our clothing for money, we
prayed they would not think of searching the saddlebags. They
didn't. We were allowed to go. Relieved, we picked up our scattered
belongings. The German soldiers had wanted money, not lives - this
On the road again, it seemed only a short way to Warsaw - the day
every Pole dreams of seeing. Here, in Poland's most glorious city,
it was the same. Jews fled through the streets, herds like cattle
lived on steps, in corners. What distinguished the famous Warsaw
from so many other cities of terror? It was bigger! It just made the
whole story uglier and more shameful.
We headed for Zimna Five, where my father's relatives, the
Holtzkeners, lived. As in Lodz, they shared food and beds with us.
We didn't stay long. Those streets were soon cut out of the ghetto.
Then we spent nights on stairways and landings. In the meantime, the
first bricks were being laid for the Warsaw ghetto wall.
My parents went out to look for a room to sleep in. It was a daily
search, while we children sat on the steps, watching the few rags
our proud family had left.
The day Mommy finally found a room, we gathered up our clothes and
pushed through the swarms of lost people to a tiny room on the third
floor of. big building. Other families lived in each of the other
rooms, and the six of us completed the filled rooms.
Dragging ourselves up the stairs, we passed the toilet that a
hundred of us would share. It was right next to our room, and the
smell wasn't very subtle, but our new home was a haven for a while.
There were three cots without any pillows or blankets. Between two
of them was a little card table. There was no place for a chair, so
we sat on the cots in the daytime. Opposite the corner where we
piled our belongings, was a little coal stove, in case we found some
We slept in pairs. That wasn't as bad as trying to sleep on an empty
stomach. I wondered how, with no dinner on the table, Daddy managed
to find raisins to boil and then bless. He never once failed to say
Kiddish over the Friday raisin-water.
In the morning, sore from our trip and from the cot, still hungry, I
went out to look for some food in the streets. Outside, I watched
children running through the dead bodies, looking for their parents
among the rest in the gutters. I walked with them until, when night
came and the scene had wrung out enough grief, I climbed the stairs
to be with my family.
As in Kalisz, I wrote more scraps of paper about my people, the
brilliant and talented, awaiting burial. Then I lay down on the cot
beside my mother. My stomach hurt. I kept dozing off, but the cry of
the ghetto did not permit a peaceful sleep. It was a tortured sleep
- a sleep afraid of death.
The situation in the ghetto did not change. Those walls, guarded by
the Storm Troops, the SS, grew higher and higher. Half-starved
people layout under the sky in snow or rain. Their open wounds bled
into the cracks in the street. Filth spread disease - boils, other
things. Starvation. I hated being hungry, yet I could not bear to
watch my people starve. Many days, water was the substitute for
food. A slice of bread, cut into six pieces, was a meal. For hours
we stood near the ghetto kitchens to get a plate of soup. But the
soup made us hungrier. It was just like water.
Close to death, full of faith, they still clung to God. They merged
into groups in attics and cellars to utter prayers. But, though the
fear of death did not make them lose faith, the burden of poverty,
growing heavier, began to loosen the bond to God; my people seemed
Scenes of my childhood became a fantasy. In the darkness of Warsaw,
the feast of lights as I had known it was very unreal. Chanuka was
the retelling of the happiness in the holy temple in Jerusalem. We
used to light the polished menorah in memory of the restoration of
that temple, when the oil had burned not one night, but eight. The
miracle of light had allowed the temple to be restored. At home in
Kalisz, we used to sit around the table. spinning the draydle, and
collecting the prize groszys.
But there was to be no miracle of light here in Warsaw, and the only
spinning seemed to be the mad circles of desperate souls, clinging
to prayers and memories. The prayers gave them a moment of ease,
until the bare truth of the streets, light again with morning,
stabbed them with reality.
Again, we had to separate because there wasn't enough food. Each of
us went to a different relative, but we promised Father that we
would all be together again on Friday nights. It was the first time
we hadn't seen our parents from Friday to Friday.
The people I lived with were very kind to me. Daddy's cousin was a
professor at the music conservatory. She taught me to love music,
supplied me with books, and became my tutor in Latin. I became
filled with a restlessness, yearning to achieve something in life.
For hours I sat, absorbed in books, inspired by beautiful words and
sentences. But my life was hopeless, such a terrible waster. There
seemed to be nothing left.
Those Fridays that we rushed home to Mommy and Daddy were unhappy
attempts to welcome the Sabbath. Weakly, Daddy blessed the raisin
water and set it down on the little table, covered with a turned
sheet. The plates in front of us were usually empty, except those
days when we managed to bring a piece of bread or some soup to Mommy
and Daddy. We watched them shrink steadily away.
When relatives could not feed us anymore, we were sent to join our
parents again. Living as part of a family once more, I felt those
years of normal happenings far away, almost impossible. I wondered
how life could ever be like that again. How it would feel to sleep
in a real bed ... to eat, and be satisfied, to listen to music
instead of shrieks ....and to feel spring awaken, blooming with the
first flowers, to be young and loved, and to feel like the whole
world belonged to me. Instead, I saw horror, destruction, and
hunger, and love presented in dirt and ugliness.
Now Jews looked at each other with
dislike and distrust, and with fear. We were all so frightfully
confused regarding time and place. We were hungry and tired, and we
were caught. The only creatures having fun were the rats nibbling on
the dead bodies and, outside the walls, the Nazi beasts, filling
their bellies on everything that had belonged to us. .
But they could not take away our minds and learning. Beggars did not
merely stand on the corners to wait for a handout. They sang and
danced, read poetry aloud to get a crust of bread. An opera star
sang an aria from Tosca on the same corner as a little child who
chanted "Mayn yidishe mammele.". A native Warsaw brought out his
piano to the corner, to play his beloved Beethoven. A young girl
practiced her dancing lessons to earn her meal.
A child - unforgettable face - a child, not asking for toys, but for
bread, "Mama, I'm hungry." But there was no place for Mama to find
food for her baby. Thousands of children, thousands of mothers
...and the blood of those innocents etched itself into the ground,
where no spring flowers or grass could cover it. At night, we who
survived the day could still hear the cry, feel the pain. The sore
message whined, we shall not forget.
Meanwhile, the web of bodies strewn through the streets grew more
intricate. An old newspaper was the sign of a body underneath.
Little children held on to their mothers' hands ... hands which had
already lost hold of life.
We often dreamed of climbing over the wall. That was both foolish
and futile. Once again, our street was cut out of the ghetto, and we
moved to another street, inside the shrinking prison of a home.
Moving now wasn't so hard. Many of our clothes had been exchanged
for food, so we had little to carry. We found a deserted kitchen
with two big beds. We were warmer now. We slept three in a bed. We
scrubbed the dusty floor and the beds, trying to clean away
reminders of the family before us.
Washing my shred of clothing in the little sink, I swished what was
left of a blouse around in circles of water. There was so little of
it compared to the size of the sink, and I could remember how the
loads of wash had swum in the giant laundry tubs back home.
In Kalisz, laundry started on Sunday night. Mommy always soaked
clothes the night before in tubs like great round bathtubs. From the
scrubby-smelling brown cakes of soap, she cut slices to lay in the
tub with the clothes. Monday morning, the girl who helped Mommy
scrubbed sudsy thins and sheets on the rubbing board. The lather
bobbed around on top of the water in the tubs. Then Mommy put our
clothes back in to boil. While the girl scrubbed everything up and
down on the board again, the vats poured clean, steamy smells in the
room. Clean, sudsy smells of bleach and soap, mixed with
freshly-boiled starch. After everything was rinsed, it was dunked in
the vats again, to soak up the bluing. Once the wash dried, we took
it to one of the cellars where somebody owned a mangle. I loved that
In a corner of the room, a pile of wooden rolls looked like giant
rolling pins. At the machine, I loved to watch the crispy white
linen go over then under the roll ...then over again.
And over and over again I heard Daddy at prayer. Even here in the
ghetto he found his holy books to read. He set a little table aside,
and sat there, studying the Talmud. His back was bent, and his face
had a yellow pallor. His eyes closed now and then, from a weakness
that could not be wished away. I hung up the few rags, and walked
out of the room. I could not watch my father like that.
I had to walk ...walk through the streets again. And their ugly
story told me that I would not live, that my dreams would never be
realized. And if I died now, what had I gotten from life? I was old
in my youth. The only pattern I could see in life was suffering. I
didn't have the chance to get knowledge, or ever to capture the
beauty of life. Oh God! Why must I die? But what was life now? I
looked around the streets. Normal life erased, the Nazi success was
They paid no attention to sick call now ...the sick just lay in the
street. As our lives dragged to a close, we gathered around in
groups ...to do nothing, to go nowhere.
In The Ghetto, Nobility
IT WAS in one of those groups that I met Henio Clar. From the first
minutes when we became acquainted, we started to be bound by a great
friendship. We could not know, after a goodnight kiss, who would be
lucky enough to have a tomorrow. And so we lived in dread and dream
... life was so rapidly stilled.
The day after I met Henio, I began to look at him as a young man,
and not as another figure, a faceless shadow in the ghetto. He was
tall - very tall and strong, it seemed. I laughed inside at the
silver-blond hair that kept falling down into his blue eyes, and at
the sure way he tossed it back again .
Most important, I knew, Henio was gallant ... still here, in this
inhuman crevice of the world, Henio kept the manners, the politeness
of home ...and in a way, perhaps, he kept home still alive. He asked
me to meet him again.
Walking through the snow-covered streets, we saw the moon lend an
extra whiteness to the world. The streets showed no signs of life.
Above us, stars glittered ...perhaps something was still the same.
Henio held my hand in his. There was so much to talk about
...together, we were so wrapped in our thoughts of life and school
and normalcy, that we saw nothing around us, until the ghetto wall
stood right in front of us. With a pang of silent panic, a return of
the old hopelessness, we turned to walk back along the street. We
knew that every walk here must be short.
Walking back to our kitchen-home, I found Henio lost in thoughts
again. Then suddenly, he stopped short, clasped both my hands and
said, "Jadzia, as long as either one of us is alive, let us remember
each other by these stars." He pointed to the big dipper and
whispered, "As long as you live, when you see it, say my name,
Jadzia. And wherever I am, I will speak yours. Don't think it silly,
Jadzia, for we must know that something is eternal, that something
will remain to show that we have lived. Our stars can do that for
To this day, when I see the big dipper, I see Henio's handsome face,
and I say his name, and I know that something is eternal.
But if Henio spoke of hope and eternity, it was only that much
harder to live among my family now. I cannot forget the mixture of
pain and love in Mommy's eyes. Where Henio's were the blue of beauty
and idealistic youth, hers were the faded blue from which the happy
past had been wrung. Mommy had shrunk to the size of a child ... the
mother who had nursed me tenderly through childhood, the one who
gave me life and shared it with me, now, gradually, hopelessly faded
away. I needed her urgently, but she had grown so far away. In her
eyes, I saw pity and love and fear. Every time we talked to her or
kissed her she broke into tears. I preferred to sit on the filthy
steps of the building than to be with my family.
There on the steps I wrote black poems, of death and hate and
tragedy. I wrote about destruction and loneliness and freedom.
Bitterly I described the nearness of death. The hours of writing
relieved me a little.
Existing through the day, waiting for night's silence, only to have
it broken with cries and prayers of people dying without a fight
...watching the babies cling to their parents, mothers who could
only pity, could not apologize for letting their baby be taken.
Tortured beings, writhing not with death, but with the fear of it,
moving their lips in steady, silent words ...words were a refuge, if
only because they were familiar, because they were the same as they
had always been. Condemned we were, condemned and sure. Not a
chance! No place to run.
After I poured out everything onto a scrap of paper, I could go up
again to live a few more hours with them, to wait a little longer.
One night when Daddy came home after being away the whole day, he
seemed to have a great deal more than usual on his mind. Oh, how can
I tell what he was thinking ...how much more or less than the day
except that his eyes told more that evening. Mommy came in a little
after him, to announce that she couldn't find anything for dinner.
Daddy looked at her as if to say, "You know what we must do," yet as
if to a child that might not understand. He told us to sit down
around the table.
My sister Guta had always been on the chubby side, but now I could
see the boniness of a frame beneath her clothes. Our baby, Aron, who
had always been saved the first bite of food, had not grown normally
in Warsaw. He was twelve. He looked like nine.
Daddy's beard was graying now ... and Mommy had shrunken from her
bustling size sixteen to fit into my little dresses.
We all sat silent. It took a while before Daddy started to talk.
"I went to see a good friend of mine today, the rabbi of Pablanic.
We talked for a long time. He advised us to separate. It won't be
I looked at mother. Tears streamed down her face. Her eyes looked
grey now, filled with sadness. "Henoh, we're not separating now?"
"Yes, Lea," Daddy said, "We must. You and Guta will go to
Czestochowa, and after a month, Jadzia will follow."
We had never seen Mommy and Daddy argue. Always before, such, things
had been said in privacy, never in front of the children. Now
Mommy's voice was loud and bitter, defiant, "Henoh, I'm not going! I
have not the strength to leave my children. We have lived together,
and if we die, it shall be together! Where is thy God, Henoh? How
can you read the holy books now? How is He enjoying the ghetto
streets? And your children being hungry? Your prayers will get us
nowhere, God has cursed his children and his rabbis! Henoh, you are
We sobbed, Daddy's face turned white. His lips continued to move in
prayer, silently. We saw him as a broken, tired old man. After a
while, he spoke again, as to a child.
"The rabbi is a wise man, Lea. It shall be as he says." Daddy
reasoned and Mommy wept for days and days.
"If this will save your children, Lea,
will you not try?"
Finally Mommy had to give in. The day was set. There were many in
Warsaw who knew Daddy from the old days. They were willing to help.
We made arrangements quietly, nervously.
It was another morning in timelessness, except that we had not had
any sleep the night before. Mommy had lain close to us, with her
bony arms around both Guta and me. She hadn't cried. It seemed she
had cried all her tears already ...Now Karola, Daddy, Aron and I
stood at the window to watch them creep away before the sun rose.
Quickly, they were swallowed up in the ghetto mob, but we stayed at
the window for hours, until the sun's glints skipped on the roofs of
Warsaw. The light glanced occasionally on a frozen body in the
And now the kitchen was so big and so empty.
It was a long time before we got news of them again. The sun had
risen when I walked out into the street. I wondered if any of us
really had a chance to be restored again to life. Everything around
me portended death. Every passage was a passage to death. I watched
the children poking through trash cans for some scrap of food, while
in the same world Hitler and the German soldiers laughed it up in
their mania for ruling the world. I squeezed through the crowd,
trying to soak in every brick, every face from the life before ...
And again I returned to Henio, to share a secret hope ...a longing
for peace and freedom. Perhaps, since I had lost Mommy and Guta in
the hoards of half-dead around us, my longing for love and affection
now made me turn more to Henio. I needed love and affection. I would
settle for friendship. For here, where my honorable, innocent people
stood condemned, I found little love, few comrades. How can we be
friends as we tear each other away from a piece of bread? And so,
Henio, who was still so much alive in our dead world, became my dear
Through those days we talked little of Mommy and Guta. With no word
yet of their safety, we held the questions and doubts inside. But
when at last the news of their arrival in Czestochowa came, it was
blackened by a tragedy closer to us in Warsaw. Daddy now lay
groaning on the cot, his head hot and wet with sweat.
For a day and night I sat at Daddy's bed, putting cold compresses on
his head, while Karola was out looking for a doctor. The morning of
the next day, Karola led a doctor into the room.
We both held our breath as he examined Daddy. But the diagnosis was
quick and painful. Typhus.
"We have to report him," he said quietly. "If not, you both will get
it." We couldn't report him. A typhus victim was not permitted to
live, to spread the epidemic.
Karola pleaded, "Please. Forget you have been here. The hospitals
are filled with people. They can't give him the care that we will.
Let him have us near him."
The young man stared at the wall. Mechanically he pronounced, "Keep
everything spotless. Keep sponging his body."
He gave us a bottle of aspirin, the only medication he had left.
Then he turned away. We watched the doorknob turn behind him.
Now we boarded the door. The Nazis were looking for sick Jews. The
covered windows would leave only a little air space, we knew. And
the kitchen was pitch black.
The next day, Karola went out again, this time for food. I stayed
with Daddy. His temperature went up to 104°. His body was covered
with a red rash. He talked about God. He was delirious. He recited
verses from the Bible and from the holy books, and called to Mommy -
I did all I could ...nothing. I wiped the sweat off his face ...and
Karola showed up in the evening with a plate of soup and a slice of
bread. After we fed him, we took turns sitting with him through the
night. Fourteen days and nights we sat and watched.
Then I got it. The room was a blur, the white face, the white
pillow, the same ...my Head ...so heavy ...agh! They have no pain
...the dead in the street are safe! No pain ...no heat ...I am the
tragedy, the misfortune! Pity me, not the bodies there! Sing to me
...sing to me, Mommy. Hold me, yes, rock me, Mom. Please, a drink of
water ...and Joseph in his coat of many colors was hated by his
brothers. Hated, hated! Germans! SS! ...Out, Juden! Everywhere you
go, we will get you! Juden. Juden! ...Shma, Israel Adonoy elochenu
... Hear Oh Israel! Hear! Where is your God? Fool. Fool! If it will
save your children ...children ...Mommy ...some soup ...tea ...Save
I sobbed. I writhed. I couldn't scream. They were outside. I lay
still to listen for Karola. Any sound to fill the silence and dark.
So I heard Henio outside.
"How are you? Jadzia? Are you there?"
I looked to the slat-crossed windows.
I would not look. I would stare at the ceiling instead. But there,
in the dark above me, the stars blazed in wild formations.
"Karola, take the Big Dipper away. Cover it, Karola. It hurts my
The nights were more peaceful. Karola lay between our beds, mine and
Daddy's, exhausted from caring for both of us. She could not know
the comfort her beautiful tender face brought us ...and how much it
brought us back to health. After days of hysteria and pain, I got
out of bed.
Daddy had been nursed to what for him was almost health ...he was a
little man, leaning on a cane. Only a youngster, I did not spend
time convalescing. Now I visited the other sickbeds in our
The neighbors paid me a meal a day, but I usually managed to steal a
little more for Daddy and Karola. What was it Daddy had said? "Never
lie. It's as bad as stealing. "Oh, Daddy, how bad is stealing? I was
glad he never asked where the food came from. Then I would have had
to lie, too. ] stole food from another human being who was just as
sick, as desperate ...and brought it to the man who would not have
eaten had be known.
For the first time in weeks, Daddy put on his talis. He struggled up
the stairs to the attic, where some of the old Jews had gathered for
Kol Nidre. Karola and I sat, faintly stirred, by the chanting
upstairs. The empty kitchen rung with the sound of Yom Kippur, the
Day of Atonement. Throughout the world every Jew would fast, and ask
forgiveness for his sins, and for his neighbor's sins. We fasted,
too. But it was a fast that had existed for months. We, too, atoned
- for only one thing, we were Juden.
. And because we were Juden we still carried the beautiful,
shattered pieces of the past. We remembered Mommy lighting the
stately yahrzeit candle to honor our dead. As it lit a little circle
of the room, we children used to line up before Daddy to receive his
blessing for the New Year. Then we prayed together, so trustingly,
"May we be written in the Book of Life."
must have been a few days after Yom Kippur that we started to talk
about my escape. Now I was to join Mommy and Guta in Czestochowa.
I was afraid to
leave my father and my sister and brother, not even sure I would see
Guta and Mommy again. As much as I hated Warsaw and the wire and the
wall, where was I running to? Into a bullet or a furnace? Into
another filthy camp? And so I held on to the last glimpse of what
was real and known. I walked again, out with people. I was sorry for
them, and for myself. I stared at the half-bare trees, where a few
brown leaves hung to the branches, just before they crumbled into
nothingness. I closed my eyes, trying to force the memories of white
winters and cold, sharp air; and the protection of wool caps and
scarves and kitchen stoves, and springs waking up to buds and leaves
and branches spread to the sky ... and summers' birds coming back to
join us under the pine trees, among the lilacs and daisies and
poppies, pecking for food in the green carpet of grass ...
I shuddered to look around me.
We decayed like the leaves. Like the broken branches, we were
cheated out of spring.
How stupid and
childish my reminiscing! In slavery, I dreamed about freedom. Living
among the dead, I thought about life. I worshipped food because my
stomach scraped and growled in me. Futile, wasted dreams. What then
should I dream about now? About the beautiful past that is dead?
About the ugly, real future that I know will be? Those two need no
one to dream about them, because they have been or will be anyway.
Have I said there is no hope? No, there is none. Except me. I am
hope. Oh, God! Let me live. Let me love and be loved. Give us hope
we have lost, give us freedom. Answer my prayers, ease the pain, dry
the tears ...
the tears. Let me live, God or
I stared at the
walls and saw the swastikas that weren't there. I closed my eyes,
hoping that when I opened them the swastikas and the walls would
have disappeared ...
It was hard to say
good-bye to people. I met Henio at the usual place. Tears threatened
to spill over, down my face. I tried to keep them back. I did not
want to say good-bye. I was so fond of my handsome idealist ... and
I had thought, really thought it could be forever. Now I cried, I
let the tears come as he kissed me and kissed me ... we wanted so
much, so little ... Now, here. Stars are eternal, dear Henio, but
not love, or life.
Hours went by
fast. I packed my rags in the rucksack. And I sat there on the cot
to look at what I would leave behind. Father, shrunken, pale, washed
of life ... the beautiful beard and hair gone now, killed by typhus.
His eyes stared into the past and the future together. Moses and
Aaron, Abraham; Goering and Hitler, deserts and mountains, Egyptian
bond slaves and tired old nomads, beggars on corners in animal
ghettos, and faintly, far away, but surely there in my father's
eyes, faith and piety, prayer, obedience, trust ...
Beautiful Karola sat in the corner of the room, fixing some of the clothes.
Her cheeks had sunk into the sad shadow of her face.
Even Aron came,
from another relative’s to say good-bye: Our dear baby. Daddy
stretched out his hand, and placed it on Aron's head to commemorate
one day amid the rest.
"Our Aron, today you become Bar
Mitzvah. Everybody celebrates this day with a feast. How little I
can give you. But you are a man. May God give you life."
We sat in
the kitchen, saying nothing. What could we say? What promise?
It was the
longest night of my life. I held tightly to Karola. It was almost
dawn when I fell asleep.
Daddy called me
... it was time to go. Karola wasn't there. She had left me when I
feel asleep, because she could not say good-bye. No good-bye to my
own Karola. She left her best dress on the cot for me.
Daddy was too weak
to walk with me. We hired a rickshaw. And I left for freedom.
Freedom! No, I could not know what would be. Only that there would
be no more home. No more kitchen or walls or broken cots or scraps
of bread together.
Daddy held on to
me. His grip was so tight it almost hurt.
Don't let me go. I'm afraid. You know they are going to kill me."
"Shhh, baby." He
drew me close to him. "Nobody’s going to kill you. In a couple of
days you'll be with Guta and Mommy." I looked around me. I looked at
the cadaverous faces. I looked at my father. His holy face seemed to
be transparent. He didn't look at me. I knew he couldn't promise. He
was crying. His sobs, muffled, were a counter-rhythm to my heart
beats. It was this same man who had come home, not long ago, beaming
with pride, elected the president of the Jewish Federation in
Kalisz. The man who had led a city, now cried like a child.
When we got to the
wall, I started to plead again.
"Daddy, no. Don't
make me go."
Slowly, he spoke,
"Child, you have always obeyed me, and you shall do so now."
A lot of people
had helped put up money so I could get out. Maybe it was because my
father had always been the one to lend money or help. Maybe it was
because we were just like them—only with mazl.
jolted to a stop. I had hoped it would go on and on. Father put his
trembling hand on my head and blessed me in Hebrew. His lips were
almost blue. His voice was quiet.
happens, be a good girl."
There was no
story this time, no climbing into his lap, though I longed to do
"Have pride. Remember, you are
Henoh Lipzyc's daughter. And when you get to Czestochowa, tell your
mother I love her and that we will soon be together."
A Polish woman was
waiting outside with a horse and buggy. I watched Daddy's rickshaw
rattle back down the street. I strained to watch it till the last
moment, to bring it back. I could not. I would never see him again.
The road stretched
out before us. Infinity. The wind blew in my face. It blew hard, but
it did not blow away fear. I wanted to cry, but I wasn't allowed. By
virtue of false papers, I was not a Jew. Then why should I cry? That
is for Jews.
stopped. I was terrified. The Polish woman did the talking. She told
them I was a mute. I watched their hands ... always their hands, to
see if they would pull out guns. They didn't. The horses started to
clop down the road again. I tried to cover my terror, to hide it, to
forget it. But those happy moments had gone by so fast and this trip
was so long. Every moment of suffering is an hour; an hour, a day.
Days can be weeks. A year ... ah, a year is a lifetime.
I forced myself to
think about something. My room, my bed ... no, it is too cold
here. I will think about food. No, I have one slice of bread to last
two days. Maybe songs. Yes, sing, Jadzia. Sing every little song you
know. Sing so you drown out the hoofs, so you don't look at your
shaking hands, so you won't listen for the Gestapo.
were twenty-five of us in the girls' club. We sang and danced, we
learned about Jewish literature and history. Esther was our advisor.
Esther ... how did she look? Always radiant, smiling with her clear,
intelligent eyes. Her curly blond hair had always bounced and shone
atop her happy face.
Again the buggy
came to a stop. This time it was not a German patrol, but Poles.
Their faces were wild, perverted. They asked the woman if it was a
Jew she was saving.
"It's a Jew you're
So that is the way the world turns.
You can watch for the bloody Gestapo knife, you can hide or run from
it, but when the knife stabs you in the back, and when it says in
lily-white letters, "Poles," then how could you know you were
supposed to run?
They asked for papers. She gave them
money. They let us go. Now I didn't have to pretend to be mute. I
couldn't talk. I whispered, "How long?"
There was no
answer. I curled up in the corner of the seat, and our wagon kept
rolling along on the stony country road.
Now there was no
family to cuddle me when I was cold. Alone, I hummed again, to stop
the sound of the road. This time, not the happy sounds of little
girls in Kalisz, but the lament of a Warsaw poet:
Where shall I go?
Every door is
Where shall I go
Everywhere is a
Without a home,
without a home
Where shall I go?
Where shall I go?
Tears streamed down my cheeks. My
teeth chattered. I wanted to doze off to death. "Mazl tsu lebn, un
mazl tsu shtarbon." Lucky to live and lucky to die.
Everything that had happened went
around in my head, and I strained to hear German voices - or Poles.
Finally. I shut my eyes, surrendering to the road and sleep.
I opened my eyes
to see lights gleaming in the little houses along the road. I was
jealous of those people and their cozy, warm homes. I could almost
see the fires on the kitchen stoves and smell the fresh coffee. I
tried to keep my home alive in the muddled images that swam in my
My home is so far
away ... I can hardly remember. My room, my books, little friends
and parents together ...
Sabbath candle, Mommy's prayer
... a flame
that was steady, sure... I want to be home.
The woman bent
"We are here. This is Czestochowa.
It's dark. Nobody will see you. It's only three blocks. Walk close
to the buildings."
I could not walk into the emptiness.
I shook and sobbed. I pleaded with her to wait at the wires. She
"Poles aren't allowed to walk at this
time of the night, dear." She kissed my head.
"Good luck, kid," she said, and
climbed into the buggy.
I didn't walk, didn't creep along
beside the houses. I ran the three blocks, raced into the building.
I sat panting on the steps inside. Wait, wait ... take a breath ...
then I can run up the stairs to them.
I heard the boots outside. Soldiers'
boots, German voices. "Verfluchten Juden." A short, hopeless gasp of
a cry ... a soft, groveling plea ... shuffling. Then night again,
Under the steps, I was sick, dizzy. I
wanted the spaces between the planks to close up, fold me in.
Outside, the squeak of boots was drowned out by my pulse, thumping,
pounding in my throat. I knew everyone could hear it, and that was
why they were coming. Coming - for me! No, God, not now. Let me see
Mommy and Guta again.
The boots went
away, down the street to somebody else. I sat, numb. It was a long
time before I could think again. Crawling out, I tried to straighten
up. But my legs buckled. I grabbed at the first stair, and crawled
up on my hands and knees. Reaching the landing, I knocked on the
bottom of the door. Nothing. I tried to knock harder.
The door opened. I got to my feet
long enough to fall into her arms. Mommy's arms. The door closed
behind. Again, a little security.
BUT HOW LONG?
I LOOKED at Mommy. How grey she was.
Her cheeks were sinking. Her beautiful blue eyes were grey, too.
Guta crawled out of bed. Her hair, hanging in disorder, cheeks wet.
We were a family again -
We sat on the bed,
me between them.
"Tell me, baby,
how was it there?"
How could I tell her the truth about
Warsaw and typhus and hunger? She was so fragile. So I lied. I
looked away, "We were fine."
But she knew, she
"What did Daddy
say when you left?"
"He told me to
tell you he loves you, and that we will soon be together."
It wasn't until dawn that I looked
around the room. It was a medium-sized kitchen, but only a corner
belonged to us. There was a small, almost rotten partition, put up
in our corner, to give us the privacy to undress in the morning. Six
other families took turns using the stove. The coals in the stove
and the heat of all the people in one room made it smelly, steamy,
Most of them were
from Czestochowa originally, so they still had sheets and jewelry to
exchange through the wires for food. The smell of those six other
dinners on the stove, while we waited ... Sometimes they offered us
a plate of soup. But when they didn't, Mommy stood by the pot to
watch. When another woman left her pot to get some salt for the
soup, Mommy dipped her cup in to get us dinner. I remember still,
the picture of Mommy, always carrying a cup of water to pour back
into the pot to make sure her cupful would not be missed.
How many were
lucky enough to steal a dinner? How many were even protected by
crowed, hot corners of a room? Outside, they were shadows -
grey. Just another ghetto.
We waited for news
from Warsaw. None came until much later.
In all our time at Czestochowa, never
once did a Pole throw bread or a bag of barley in to us, but they
threw the news of Warsaw into our faces fast enough. The Jews in
Warsaw were rebelling. Thousands of dead lay in the streets. The
Germans had set the buildings on tire. And, surrounded by flames,
Jews were throwing their handmade grenades.
Days flew, and with them, our hopes.
We knew what to expect as the final chapter in Warsaw.
Like we did everyday, one afternoon,
Mommy, Guta and I stood in line for a plate of soup. Hundreds stood
with us in front of the ghetto kitchen. The next thing I knew, Mommy
was lying at my feet. Her body was still. Her face, no longer grey,
had turned a cadaverous white. I fell to my knees beside her,
shaking her body, and crying, "Mommy!" She didn't hear.
"Oh, please, God,
don't take her away now. She is all we have left."
A crowd gathered around us. Somebody
poured cold water over her. She came to. They brought her soup,
laying it before her. She didn't touch it. Mommy was not hungry -
she was dying away. Dying away with Daddy, Karola, and Aron among
the mobs in Warsaw. And with those three, part of her life was
ripped away as surely as if they had torn out her heart.
As long as we didn't see it, we could
choose not to believe it. We could still hope for our dear ones in
Warsaw. But through the nights, I thought constantly of Karola and
the care she had given me and Daddy. God only knows if she got it
when I left. Who would take care of her? I was haunted, each night,
with a dream of Warsaw in flames - and through the flames, Karola’s
beautiful face. What was worse, I could not share my fears with
Mommy and Guta. I had never told them. So I lived alone in Hell.
There were short
gatherings in the huge backyard. When
we didn't want to think about the fact that there was no food, or
that thirty other people in the room were becoming more and more
like animals, we sat out in the yard. It was a city ... where young
people fell in love, where old people grieved, and everyone dreamed.
The yard was a city where time knew no rules. In the period of a
month, a girl could be married, a pregnant widow, and an orphan.
It was in the yard
that I made a few friends again. Henrio and Natka, and Aba, and I
sat in an old buggy to sing the old songs -
Russian songs and Hebrew songs
and songs we had sung as little children and lullabies from home.
And sometimes we hardly sang at all after a few words. We cried the
I saw Zosia in
Czestochowa, too. How good to see someone who knew me as anything
but a beggar! Her little round cheeks were still clear and pink, and
her eyes still large and green. She took me home with her, and
from then on, her mother
always ready for me with something
to eat. She never knew how
grateful I was, for I was too proud to go there often.
Meanwhile, we knew
the fights in Warsaw were coming to an end. And the streets in
Czestochowa, too, now started to be bloodied. To the German
soldiers, pulling the trigger was a game. Having Jewish girls and
throwing them into the streets afterward was, after all, exactly
what one does with a used plaything.
We had grown sick
from German soldiers's stares. We trembled when they spoke. We
didn't cry when they hit us. Now, we know ourselves as humiliated,
disgraced creatures -
still trying to keep pride and faith,
desire, knowledge -
but hopeless. With what human feeling
was left, we shared the last slices of bread. With the needs of
children, we looked for warmth and softness, reassurance, in an hour
of love. With faith that comes not from wisdom, but from
desperation, we prayed for a miracle. Prayers get answered
sometimes. Ours didn't. There were no miracles.
There was a night
I shall remember as long as I live. The Germans gave the order that
next morning, every Jew was to stand outside in a line. We didn't
sleep. We packed what we had ... a change of clothes, a tin can for
water, some food. Mothers packed babies, or gave them sleeping
pills. Grandparents took grandchildren, hoping the parent could stay
alive without them. Not that we knew where we were going -
but rumors were spreading
about work camps for young people and crematoriums for the old and
Mommy sat close to
us all night. We kissed her face and hands, and wondered and prayed
and wept. We wanted the night to last forever. It would not. We
heard the sound of people crowding into the streets.
Mommy took out a
piece of red paper and rubbed it on my cheeks to make me look
healthy. She stuffed hankies in my brassiere, because I still looked
like a little girl. She wanted me to look grown up at fourteen. I
kissed her hands and hair, and I clung to her. It was time to go.
Mommy looked at us both. Her lips trembled as she spoke.
"Let's not stay
together," she said. "Maybe we'll have a better chance. And, my
daughters, if you are left alive, don't fight. You are the only
ones who will be left."
Guta and I had
always fought, and Mommy had called us the Cat and Dog. Now she said
gently, "Promise -
if I am taken away, you will not run
after me." We promised. We cried, we kissed, embraced again. Then we
walked out to the others.
The crowd in the
streets was beyond number. As far as I could see, it was a swarm of
men, women, and children. The sick and crippled were in wheelchairs.
Many fainted from fear.
We heard German
voices everywhere. There was no way of disobeying them. We were
surrounded by machine guns.
We got into the
lines. I looked around me at swollen bodies left to feed the rats,
and at the bodies just as decayed standing besides me. Somebody had
gouged out our insides already, and now they wanted to do us a favor
and murder us all. Yet, bitter as I was, I knew that as long as my
eyes could open, I would hold onto my life. Horrible as the stories
of crematoriums and gas showers were, I would not believe them. As
long as I still breathed I could hope that I would be saved. And I
knew that every Jew in the line believed it would be he.
From far down the
line, the Germans came closer. Recht to death and links to life.
Recht would be fast death. It meant joining the group of old ones at
the far end of the street. Links meant to join the young people, who
were being grouped in the middle
piazza. As the
Gestapo arbitrarily dealt out death, the sounds of life went on
around me. Next to me, a baby pulled at her mother's arm. The mother
looked straight ahead to nothing. Then, suddenly, quietly, as if she
had been awakened from a dream, she picked up the little girl. She
held the child to her and hummed, "Vu aheen zohl ikh geyn." Where
shall I go ... She was transfixed with fear. Her face was wet. The
child put her head on her mother's shoulders and with tiny hands,
petted her mommy’s face.
"Don't cry, Mama. Don't be afraid.
Wherever you go, I'll go with you." I looked at my Mommy’s grey hair
ahead of us. There were about ten between her and Guta, about eight
more between Guta and me. Thousands of children and thousands of
Meanwhile, the German patrols
searched the houses. They brought out the babies that had been left
behind. Now their mothers ran to claim them!
But who was I to condemn? Hadn't I
left my mother? And she was my life.
Right to death,
left to life. Right and left. The hand pushed Mommy right. I knew it
would be. Mommy, not even forty years old, looked like an
old woman. She went to join the others. I bit my
fingers so I wouldn't scream.
I didn't see the mobs around me, just Guta. Left and right, Right
and left, and right and left, and right and left. Left! Yes, she's
sent to life.
It happened so
quickly now. I looked at his ugly face. His black suit. His
swastika. Left. If he hadn't pushed me, I don't think I could have
moved. I turned back, shrieked, "Mama!" I started to run. Out to the
right. To mommy. Guta grabbed my hand. With her other hand, she
covered my mouth. Together, we followed Mommy's small figure with
our eyes, as she disappeared among the others. She didn't look back.
We never saw her again.
It was months
afterwards when we found out how those taken from Czestochowa had
been burned in the crematorium in Treblinka. Another part of me,
We stood there for
hours. No longer left and right ... now 1, 2,
3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 to death. One, life. Nine to death and one to life. Nine to
death and one ... like cattle we were led to slaughter. If an old
man walked too slowly, a bullet left him behind his family.
And every baby, every shrieking mama,
every wailing sister and brother and every shout and boot-step
pounded in my head. Shots and sobs, nine to death and ... Mommy!
Stay, oh ...Ieft! Right! One and nine and one ...
And now the Juden stood in crowds or
still in lines to wait their turn. Once people, now beings. No more
families, no more homes. Not even tears, only emptiness.
A mama carrying
two babies in her arms, and with two little ones pulling at her
skirt, marched out to the right. Behind them, the father, provider,
protector, defender, trailed along, almost as if he, too, clung to
schneller!" We were pushed, chased, into a big building. The rooms
were completely empty. We lay on the floors, so close to each other
there was hardly space between the bodies. I struggled to find my
blessings, as I knew Mommy and Daddy would have wanted. At least
Guta was beside me. We were together, a shred of a family.
After an hour,
bread and water were passed around. We didn't eat. I kept thinking
about Mommy, all alone. Among them all, alone and small, as were we
all ... small and defeated. For not one, the chance to learn. For
not one, the time to teach and give. Each child, each man, could
have built a country, a world. Instead, each was a threat, an enemy.
No matter. We had been conquered by the brave ones. Heroes with guns
against women and children. Heroes with tanks over bare-handed
beggars. Oh, glorious victory!
With nightfall, I
continued to see Mommy -
her busy figure in the kitchen, her
elegant appearance on the street, her tender eyes bent over my sick
bed. The love and joys of daily life were dead forever. I cried
tears that seemed endless. How much more could we endure? Yet how
could the rest, supposedly people, keep on living in the middle of
it all? How did a German sleep after a butchery day? What defense
did Goering, Hitler, and Eichmann have for
How did they expect to pay for minds
and bodies? I closed my eyes and saw the fields of Poland - yellow
corn fields, and the glare of the sun on daisies and violets, and
big cherry trees ... I wondered if the flowers and trees were still
blooming in the blood-watered ground and in the smoke from the
As the days and
nights passed without any markers to tell them apart, we made
friends with the girls around us. Lucia, from Krakow, slept near me.
Together, we lay silent on the floors, waiting for our rations. The
potatoes were not peeled. We ate them anyway. We were hungry.
After a few days,
Lucia received a note from the other building. We learned from it
that there were Jewish men still alive, being held in that place.
She started to get
notes regularly, tied to rocks and thrown over the fence between the
two buildings. She read the letters to us aloud. Her husband was
alive, and living with two other men. They were Lolek Grudman and
Lolek was Izio's
brother-in-law, she told us. He was, she said, kind and good, and
Izio, from Czestochowa, was brilliant and handsome.
while she stopped talking about Lolek, and concentrated on Izio
how personable, witty, what a
mind! As soon as we got out of the building, she told me, she must
certainly introduce us.
Good time to think
about boys. I still could not forget Mommy -
how did she die? Or was she
still alive? For a married woman, Lucia sounded so foolish.
organized Jewish police to keep order. They told us to pack our
things. We moved out again, this time to the poorest section of the
ghetto, where they had just put up fresh wires. They opened the
gates, and in one rush, we trampled over each other, clawing and
scratching our way in, to get a place to stay. Like madmen, we
grabbed at the scraps of clothing the other Jews had left behind. We
snatched at moldy crusts and picked the floors clean.
We were all young,
and we had been granted a reprieve. Now most lost their ethics,
didn't give a damn about morality. They bound each other, not with
love, but with the name: Jew. Every one that was left belonged to
the rest. They wanted to live.
In those hideous
hours, they lived the lives of the condemned. They did not care,
because they would never have to look life in the face again.
love-making an instrument of grabbing all life in at one time. They
had love when everything else had been taken away. Now they consumed
each other bitterly. But love consumed in frenzy had the quality of
With no beds to
lie on, only a dirty floor, forty people grappled with each other,
reassuring themselves that they were still alive. There were no
partitions, no curtains to dress or undress behind. Sleeping against
each other at night, we were forced upon each other in the daylight,
Sometimes we were
able to drag a cot down from empty bunkers and apartments. We took
turns then, sleeping on the beds, sometimes in threes, usually in
The ghetto kitchen
opened again. We stood in lines for hours, waiting to fill our tin
cans. We sipped the soup right there in the lines, hoping that if
there were some left, we'd get second helpings.
Around us, the
streets were filthy and narrow, the buildings just wooden shacks.
There wasn't much hope of finding food or furniture or clothing
here, because the Germans had picked it clean before they took us
Now, here in
Czestochowa, there were no longer old people or children. Jewish
babies, threats and burdens to society, no longer lived in the dirty
streets. But at night, even now, we could hear occasionally the wail
of an abandoned infant, stuffed into a cupboard or into a hole in
the wall. They had been trained not to cry. How they had been
trained! But now they cried for mama and for food, and for somebody
to keep the promise and take them home again.
there was no wall, as there had been in Warsaw. Not high
wires as in
Lodz. Here, we were corralled behind a mesh fence not more than
three feet high. It made a mockery of the ghetto and fools of us.
Here where the young, strong ones lived, the Gestapo did not even
need a wall or a wire. Here, where fiery idealists and philosophers
might exist, minds were hollow of hope. Yes, we could climb over the
fence, and we could run, but where could we go? To the black
streets, the black corpses, the black Poles, or the black Nazis?
Now another order.
Every hidden child must be at the piazza the next morning. If not,
the ghetto would be searched and every baby would die the next day
We lined up along
the fence. Grey drizzle seeped into the ground and us. We watched
the last Jewish children being taken away.
Most of them were
lifted into the wooden carts by strangers. They squinted in the
daylight after having been pulled out of basements and crannies.
They stared silently at the few German guards. Hungry and worn, they
were old men and women inside the frames of children.
From the bunkers,
a few mothers crawled out to their babies - less because they were
ordered to do it than because their children were sick and hungry.
These skeletons of women felt needed.
The wagons were
filled, ready. Then out of the building, one woman strode toward the
cart. The Germans knew her, Doctor Horovitz, the head of the
infirmary. She climbed into the pile of little bodies, beside her
daughter. Triumphantly, she stared ahead, into the faces of the
We saw them move
toward her, talking in quietly gruff voices. They ordered her back
to the infirmary, back to life and work. The sick needed her. The
Gestapo needed a doctor for the Jews. Hushed, we watched the only
one of us offered a chance. She understood, closing her eyes on the
lines of haggard faces, the piled up old children, the persuasive
men in the uniforms. At that moment she seemed to hold all the
wisdom and courage we thought had died. She spoke quietly, "Rather
than living without my child, I shall die with her."
The wheels began to turn, creaking
against the wagons. Slowly, then faster, the funeral procession
rolled down the street. Among the babies, one woman, proudly
I looked at the blur of faces around
me. The broken figures began to scatter. They stared at the
emptiness around us. They kept disappearing into the buildings ...
the only way to get away from the void. Guta and I walked back to
the building. . .
I was glad I wasn't a child or an old
one. Yet I envied the babies their innocence. They understood
nothing. Impossible; they understood everything around them and
mirrored it back in their frightened little eyes. They knew, and now
I learned from them ... that the only lucky ones had died in their
beds ... or maybe the ones who had never been born.
I held on to Guta.
Cold sweat had formed on my neck. She dragged me upstairs with her,
to our room. We crawled onto the cot to try to sleep away the wooden
carts and faceless babies. Sleep was our opium now, as scarce as any
drug. Just as I had clung to Mommy, now I clung to Guta. I prayed
for our lives long into the evening. And later, while the others
sighed and snored as they slept, I listened to the outside. Nothing.
Now I wanted to hear a cry, a wail from the walls and the basements.
Even frenzied little steps, running and run after -
but there were none. None
caught, none chased. Even the drizzle of the morning had deserted
Czestochowa. There were no more dripping sounds on the windows. Only
silence, hollow nothing. A great dark crater. No, a tomb.
And out of the
sick shall He bring forth the strong, and out of misery shall come
fulfillment, and out of death, life.
IT WAS the next day that I saw Lucia in the street. Comically, she
still remembered her promise about the young man, her husband's
friend. I found she was serious about having me meet him. She took
me home and introduced me to her husband, and to Lolek Grudman. I
was impressed. Lolek was a handsome man, still dressed in his fine
clothes from Czestochowa. He smiled broadly. "Is this the girl you
Lucia made some reply, but I looked at the other young man. From
very far away, I heard Lucia saying, "This is ... It I knew - Izio.
His eyes were large and brown, his lashes thick and long. His skin
was very fair, and he smiled a smile that warmed everything around
me, showing his white, regular teeth. I held out my hand, and he
covered mine in his. I could feel the rhythm in my chest, in my
throat, beat faster, thumping a flood of warmth into my face. He
leaned toward me. Softly, he said, "Finally, I have found you."
After that, we saw each other every spare moment. He wasn't the
beast of a man that we saw on the corners in ghettos. Amid the
ugliness, Izio was gently protective. He still had dreams and tears.
Others had watched me before, but now I knew the expression in the
other's eyes, now I understood tender, unspoken words. I knew Izio
loved me, too.
I started to believe that our broken lives could be restored again.
I felt in me the dreams of freedom again, growing brighter and
brighter. A scar in me seemed to be healing, and I hardly felt pain
any more. Love, Izio's was sunshine in the dark world. I knew that
never could be taken away again.
Izio kept telling me, as we walked through the streets in
Czestochowa, that I was the most beautiful girl in the world. His
eyes were so sincere, his words so sure, that he made me almost
believe him. He made jokes about little things that we both had
left, and so once again I laughed. He seemed to find a part of me
that I didn't know, a part that was still alive ...and he made it
grow until I was no longer dead and empty inside.
At first Izio took me to meet all of his friends, and I introduced
him to mine. Usually we found them lying on cots necking. Angry and
rebellious, they were getting back at life. Izio and I knew we did
not fit in, because we still had life. Gradually, we stopped seeing
them, and built a world around ourselves.
Sitting on the steps, Izio sang to me. Sometimes love songs or sad
songs of wandering, but usually silly, funny songs ...complete with
motions and funny faces.
I'm Avramala, the real tough guy!
I'm Avramala, the leader of the toughest!
I'm Avramala, whatever I do is done for sure! I'm Avramala, the real
And there on the steps, Avramala sat snarling at me! We both
collapsed with laughter.
While we spent days singing on the steps, the whole ghetto seemed to
come alive again. The Jewish policemen organized us to sign up for
jobs. Now, working, we smuggled in everything we could from the
outside. Women came back from work wearing five blouses and sheets
and pillowcases for food or money. Now we didn't stand in lines at
the kitchen; we had food and clothing in our own rooms. Coffee and
meat and fruit poured into the Czestochowa ghetto.
But we knew where the food that we wolfed down came from. We were
warm and full now on what we gathered from the dead.
While the men worked in factories, most of the women cleaned the big
ghetto. We had been told it was safer to work than to stay in the
ghetto during the daytime. So Guta and I signed up with the rest.
We were led in groups to buildings to sort clothes. We walked into a
kitchen where, not long ago, life existed. On the table, an
unfinished dinner sat, rotted after two weeks. In another room, we
saw an opened Bible, with a yarmalka left to mark the place, a
wedding gown on a bed, unworn ...albums of family pictures, locks
of blond hair in a hanky, saved from a child's first haircut.
We trampled over each other, pulling for a dress for ourselves. We
sorted shirts, slacks, underwear - clothes which had once belonged
to our own. Tripping over children's toys, we stared into empty
cradles ...lifting a pillow, we uncovered an old woman dead in her
bed, her eyes still wide open with horror. Lucky to die at home ...
Once on a cleaning job, we walked into a little apartment that
looked, from the clothing, like it belonged to a newly-married
couple. Everything was new and orderly, everything placed neatly in
the drawers. There were three of us there, going through the
closets. We heard a creak in the door. Frozen, we watched a square
in the door rise slowly. Then, from under the plank, a ghostly white
face. We couldn't tell how the woman was. Her eyes were wild, her
hair tangled in knots, and standing out from her head in clumps. She
was covered with dust. Spider webs made nets all over her hair and
"Please don't kill me," she croaked.
While the other girl stood guard at the door, Guta and I pulled her
out, practically carrying her to a chair. We gave her a little bowl
of water, and watched while she gulped most of it, spilling the rest
all over herself.
She told us her story. When they heard the steps of the Gestapo her
husband had told her to hide. In a little bag, he had put a few
scraps of food and left it with her. He promised to come back. She
told us she hadn't eaten for days, because she was afraid to come
out. Now, when she heard the sound above her again, she told us, she
had decided to give up.
When we promised to take her with us she calmed down a little. We
combed her hair, as she sat passively, like a little child. In the
afternoon, four left the little apartment instead of three.
Guta stood behind us, to catch her if she fell, while the other girl
and I walked on either side. Another life saved ...for now.
The evenings were ours - mine and Izio's. He waited for me every
evening, under the slope of a little crooked roof down the street.
Waited, with him arms held out to me as I ran to him.
Then we walked, back to my room. It wasn't so small now. It didn't
stifle breath or hope anymore. Now, even the streets were not so
ugly; at least I could look away to something more handsome, a
We wandered between the buildings. watching the moon rise. It was
bright and yellow against the dark. We were part of the dark, but we
could still see the round of light and it frightened us because it
lit up ourselves and what we were.
Everything had meant nothing before. Hundreds of white water lilies
had bloomed, sprinkled about in green ponds in Kalisz. Opening,
softly, they had caught some of the rain that poured into the green,
making it deeper and greener, sometimes bluer. Quiet little
whirlpools circled the drops where they splashed, then washed into
each other. I hadn't seen them.
Now a clump of scorched grass between two buildings was lush and
green. Every rotten tree with a few leaves, still alive, was
beautiful. A daisy, wilted, but existing where hardly one other
grew, was a thing of awe.
Together we saw them now, trees and grass, occasionally a flower ...and they awoke some kind of longing in both of us. Some nights we
talked for hours about them, and everything else that was gone. And
sometimes we just looked, and walked. Just to the wires.
"Izio! Imagine if those wires were taken away! Do you know ...I would
run, run for miles and miles ...just to have the feeling of running
without being stopped. Then I would eat. I would eat everything I
couldn't have all this time. And then for hours and hours I would
stay in a bathtub of hot, soapy water. And then I would sleep for
two days in a real bed with clean sheets and pillows."
I looked at Izio. "What would you do if you were free?"
He took my hands in his. His eyes shone with dreams. "Do you know
what I would do? I would marry you. And we would have six children
and a real home in some far away country. Maybe we would go to
A shot interrupted him. One some other street, another Jew crumpled.
As did our dreams, again.
It wasn't easy to separate. Through the night I lay awake, repeating
Izio's words. ''This is different, Jadzia. We aren't like the rest
of them. We love each other, and we belong together. Why must we
fight ourselves, when all we have is each other?"
I turned my face to the pillow. I could not change now. In Warsaw,
in the big ghetto here, dozens of times I'd been stopped on the
street, asked to give myself for a piece of bread. Why should I tell
myself it was different now?
But I knew it was. I knew I wanted Izio's arms around me, his soft
kiss forever. Good night at the door wasn't enough. Through all his
gentle talk, I wanted to be persuaded, wanted to love him before we
both were murdered with the rest. Another time I would have waited,
would have reasoned. Now, who was here to reprimand? Who even cared
"Be a good girl, Jadzu. Never lie, it's worse than stealing ...be
proud you're a Jew."
Jew! I would lie as I have stolen, if I could escape that name, Jew!
Where are you, Father, that you still bind me to those words? Do you
even know now, what is good? I am good, I am. But I want life and
love, a little for myself before they take everything away.
In the morning, pale little lights lit the ghetto windows, as we
prepared to go to work. Each person, among the rest, seemed alone.
They stood in groups, silently hoping to resist the coming of the
day. At night, all the terror and loneliness seemed to be protected
by the dark. Now the sun rippled across the wrinkled clothing.
Failing to warm us, it exposed our hollowness. Pain, suspended a
little at night, reappeared with the sun.
Some were not hollow. They were beautiful and young. And though it
was a disgrace to intermarry, and though the Jews were dirty, their
women were still good to go to bed with. One of the soft young ones,
the Tannenbaum girl, had been taken way several days ago. How we
watched the SS car pull up, bringing her back. As she stepped out,
the driver climbed out too. Grabbing her arm, he threw her against
the wall. Through her shredded dress we could see dazzling white
flesh. In her eyes, fear ...and pride. She glared at the German,
burning terror and hate into him. Then he laughed. And shot.
I could never really forget the street beatings and the murders, but
running back to Izio, I could share the hellish fear they threw into
me. As he listened, time flew ...until soon we had talked about
everything: homes, families, childhood and school, about Lolek's
wife - Izio's sister, Regina who had been cremated with the baby in
lzio spoke for hours about his father and mother. I knew every spot
of their apartment, every piece of furniture, the smell of his
mother's vegetable soup and where she kept the candy hidden. And I
felt a part of it and him.
I poured out my story of Warsaw, finally getting rid of everything
that had been bottled up inside. Finally, I could tell it all to
someone who could understand, and who wanted to share it.
That was it. lzio wanted to share everything with me. And so again,
the gentle proposal. As he had asked fifty times before, he asked
now, "Jadzia, let's get married. I love you so much. Let's make our
lives worth something while we still can. Only death can separate
us, but that could come tomorrow."
I tried to smile a wise smile, and ran my fingers through his hair.
"I do love you, Izio, but I still have a sister. Guta and I can't
It was true, that much. As desperately as I wanted to be with lzio,
I couldn't just walk out on Guta.
"We'll all live together," he cried.
We both knew that was impossible. Men on one street, women on
another, married couples on a third. That was the German order, and
anything else would have been stupid to try. Still, how long were we
supposed to be satisfied with seeing each other a few hours in the
evening? That, too, was impossible.
I looked at lzio. He was a little boy, disappointed because he had
been overruled and unhappy because he didn't know how to change the
unchangeable. He was a man, mature and protective, offering to make
a child his wife. Now he had decided.
"We'll talk to Guta tonight."
It was a Sunday evening, because we hadn't worked that afternoon.
Izio made me wait on the steps outside while he went up to talk to
Guta. He stayed there a long time, while I fought with myself. I
loved lzio, but I was afraid. Afraid to leave Guta alone, and afraid
of marriage and sex. I loved my sister, I needed her. I didn't want
to rip up the last shred of my family. But I loved Izio so much, and
I wanted to be with him every minute. Guta wouldn't take that away
from me, even though I would be leaving her with nothing.
From the door, Guta called down to me. They had finished talking. I
climbed up slowly, looking at my feet until I reached the landing.
Raising my head, I met Guta's tired, sad eyes .
"Jadzia ... It she started quietly. "Guta, please, understand. We
"Jadzia, you are young. You don't understand how important you are
to a person. When you are needed and loved, you must be there."
I was relieved that she had decided for me. Guta and I would stay
"Jadzia, lzio has told me how much he loved you. And ...he has said
something else. If you will not marry him, he says he will kill
"He is young, and so he says dramatic things. But, Jadzia, I believe
You are very much in love. Marry him, Jadzia, and be happy."
I threw my arms around her, and kissed her face through our tears.
Then I ran into the room where Izio was waiting for me.
That same evening we went to tell Lolek about our plans. Grinning
and laughing like children, we ran into his room.
"Lolek," Izio announced, "We're getting married!" he beamed,
waiting for the hearty Congratulations.
Lolek looked at Izio, then at me, then back to Izio. He started to
speak, talking to the wall behind us.
"Izio, Jadzia ...do you understand that you are both children? Do
you know what it means to be married - not just sharing sadness or
happiness with each other, but worry, torment, hours of anguish and
caring about someone else's life more than your own. It is not a
case of wanting to live. You must live for her, and she must live
above all. Do you know the fear that you will bring a child into the
world, so that it, too, can live in dirty, crowded cellars without
food for a week? What can you promise that baby, or each other?
After this war, you will both still be young. Then, you will ask
yourselves why you threw away education and travel and beauty for
what seemed like happiness. Love is powerful, yes. But in this
wired-in world it heals much less than it wounds."
It was as if he spoke, not to us, but to himself, about his wife and
child, already gone.
lzio said quietly, "We've made up our minds." He took my hand and we
turned to leave.
Lolek called after us. We looked back. "When you need me, I'll be
Running again, we raced over to one of the houses down the block,
where one of the rabbis lived. He promised to marry us the next
Sunday. And finally, the senseless procedure of getting German
permission to marry and move into the other street.
Those next few days at work seemed endless. Now that the big ghetto
was clean, we all had different jobs. Like sorting potatoes. The
good ones for the Germans, and the rotten ones for the camps. And
while I sorted, I watched the passers-by. I watched them, envious.
Jealous because they were free and I wasn't. The good ...and the
Those busy streets, beyond the big ghettos, were full of Polish
children going to school. Children, just my age.
The buggies rattled by, and I remembered
summers in Lisy, Opatuwki or Winiary. The buggies rolled by. Now I
was an orphan, and the parents were gone. Now I was a nomad, and
there was no home. Now I would be a married woman, never a child.
Yet, like a child, I was frightened, unsure, lonely. Mechanically I
judged the good and the rotten, moving my lips very slowly.
"Oh God, you have taken away everything you ever gave me. Now you
have given me love, and someone to share it. Please don't take him
away too. And if one of us has to die, make it me, me! Or if he must
die, let me die with him. Oh, please, just this one person in the
whole world, just this time, God, don't take everything away."
I had never prayed to die before. Not for Karola and Daddy and Aron,
not even for Mother. Now I demanded God and Nazis to leave lzio
Yet, walking home in the afternoon, I was afraid that something had
happened. Every day I tried to prepare myself to hear that they had
killed him. In the lines, I watched the machine guns and rifles,
steering us toward the little ghetto, and I counted ... our, nine,
twelve, fifteen, to catch the one who tried to run. To shoot him
down, and ten more at random, for an example. In Izio's group did
someone try? Ten more for an example.
I wished I didn't love anybody.
And then at last, back in the ghetto, all those days when he did
come back, he took me up in his arms, and we kissed and cried like
children. Together again, we clung to each other and walked again
and dreamed. In those moments, we did not care if our castles had no
foundations. And if they existed only in the air, that was all
right. For we were more a part of that world than this.
Now everyone around us seemed to be a part of our happiness. Natka,
who lived in my room, loaned me the pink negligee she had found when
we cleaned the big ghetto. From somewhere, Guta was collecting meat
and bones for soup, and fruits, and stacking them under the beds and
on the window sills. I giggled, delighted, as I watched the stacks
get too high to fit under her bed. The girl downstairs offered her
white silk blouse and a veil she had stolen from one of the houses,
and somebody brought us a bottle of wine. Izio and I were dreaming,
doubting if it were all real. Every hour brought us closer to each
other, yet any hour, any minute could smash it all.
So we longed, impatient with the festivities.
Sunday morning, I sat among all the girls. And while they chattered,
I sat completely dressed, and quietly terrified. I was not sure we
were going to make it alive to the canopy. And if we did, how long
would we be together? An hour? A day? It does not matter. Nothing
mattered except that I will be Mrs. Izio Abramson, and that we will
be happy this hour, this day!
Late in the afternoon, Guta and Natka walked with me to the rabbi's
house. His room was tiny, bare of furniture. But all around the
room, our friends, our family, stood to watch lzio and me. Zosia and
her sister Ruth, and Mr. Singer, those three to remind me of Kalisz
and happy days. And Katka and Henoh, who had lived through these
days with us. Lucia, and her husband, beaming on us both - proud to
be the successful matchmakers. Guta tried to smile. She was the
proud mama, who was losing the bride. And the real mommy and father
...would not be here, would never come. Even friends were too much
like strangers to Mommy, Karola, Aron and Daddy.
I walked to the canopy. I was lonely. Outside, the dead streets
refused to acknowledge the life that would be mine. Probably they
were right, I twisted the hanky in my fingers. No one could know the
fear, the wanting to throw away reason and live on feelings. I was
wrong. One knew. Izio's tender eyes smiled down at me, reassured me.
There was someone who cared. Beside him now, close to him, I grasped
his hand, reaching out and finding security.
Calm, I watched the rabbi and listened to his words. The room was
still and even this man in the white talis spoke in a whisper.
Little, and yellowed by malnutrition, he faded into the pallor of the
corner, lighted partially by a shabbas candle. And he spoke the same
words he would have used in Kalisz or in Krakow before the Third
Reich. He still wore the talis, raised the canopy, blessed the wine,
He, too, had run, but he had preserved these, clung to them. As
Lolek clung to the memory of his wife, as I clung to Izio, so he
clung to the traditions. Daddy had, and so had the frightened little
men with the long beards. We all held on to something, and we
squeezed out of it life and promises to feed ourselves. We all hung
on, only some chose something more real than others.
Lolek stepped forward with our wedding present, two rings. Izio slid
the band onto my finger, took me in his arms. I burst into tears.
Around me, I heard the others weeping. They wept because, through it
all, they were still people.
Afterwards, at Lucia's house, we celebrated with a wedding feast.
Guta and the other girls had prepared the soup and meat, and lined
them up in huge platefuls on a long wooden table. I think everyone
in Czestochowa must have pitched in a dish or two. And while
everyone else stuffed himself, Izio and I wished they'd all hurry
and finish so we could be alone.
Unlike the typical Jewish weddings, there was nothing left to wrap
up and take home. So, as soon as the food dwindled, our guests
started for the door. lzio and I left, now, too, heading for the
little room his friends had given us for the night.
He walked out into the black night, and the wind was blowing wildly
in our faces. But our hearts were at peace. We were happy. We
stopped in front of a worn little shack. Izio pushed the door open.
I looked at him instead of the room inside. Then he picked me up.
"Here we are, Jadzia. Mrs. Abramson, may I present ... our home!"
Grinning, and striding into the room, he kicked the door shut behind
him. I tried to take in everything in one broad sweep - against the
walls, about ten cots had been stripped and abandoned. One, under
the far window, was freshly made with clean white sheets and a
pillow case. Izio Jet me down gently, leaving his arm around my
waist, then pulling me close to him. For a while, we stood, clasped
together. His tears ran down my cheeks, and his lips pressed
themselves to mine over and over again. The rabbi's words sounded in
me, always the same, yet each time more faint. I had been bruised,
now I was healed. I had been empty, now I was so full that I spoke
and breathed love. Izio, too, was full, yet he cried. We were still
The moments of passion pushed away horror. They burned pain away. We
loved, at least, determined to ignore death.
Our married life was so strange. I wasn't the wife who waited at
home, watching at the window until her husband came home for the
evening meal. We both worked. And we never knew which would wait at
the window for the other, who might not come home that night.
I waited at the gate, to be led to work with Guta, while Izio was
sent with a group of men to carry bricks. Guta had moved into
another room with Dorka, a girl who was one of Izio's friends. Izio
and I moved in with Lucia and her husband.
Our room was too small for two couples, but there were two real
beds, two chairs and a little table that took up too much room. Up
against the wall, under an old dish cupboard, we shoved a stool,
with an enamel basin on top. That way, in the mornings and evenings
we took turns washing, opening the cupboard doors into a makeshift
We were getting used to being nameless Jews in the daytime, and Mr.
and Mrs. Izio Abramson in the evenings. Maybe the garbage and
people-smells of the streets made our hours together more precious
than if we had lived in a normal world. Then we two were the only
important human beings in the world.
I usually waited for Izio at the gate, anxious to see that he was
safe, and to spend every minute I could with him. This afternoon had
been no different. I spotted him in the lines, and traced his figure
coming closer to where I was. At the gate, I threw myself at him and
laughed hysterically, laughed to be alive! Then we hurried across
the street to scrub off the dirt and drink a little soup. I almost
skipped into a knot of people who were huddled in the middle of the
street. The women, and seven of the men were crying. The others bit
their lips, or held their heads in their hands. Izio asked the young
men near the outside of the group who it had been.
"Lolek Grudman - sent to
Skarżysko death camp."
"Izio," I stammered, "'That's where they have one of the
He didn't nod. He put his arm over my shoulder, and
started toward our room again.
We were not immune. I knew that now, and most of the day I was
practically insane. "When I go home tonight, he will not be there. I
will never see him again. No, I will see his head in the· crowd when
they march to the gate and he will talk toward me, and I'll wave,
he'll turn in at the gate, and I'll run to him and throw out my
arms! Then, before I can touch him, they will shoot him in the back!
Or, we will walk up the stairs to our home, and we will think we are
safe another night. Then, while I sleep beside him, they will march
in and order him into the street ...then they will butt away his
flesh, bit by bit ...but I will not watch. I will beat them and
tear them too ...and then I will run into their knives! And laugh.
Oh, how I will laugh!"
But all those days, thought the lines were always shorter than the
day before, Izio came back. And since so many were taken, now there
were empty rooms and extra beds in most of the buildings. So Izio and
I moved out of Lucia's room and into our own. We had one bed, one
chair, and a little coal stove.
I was excited about having our own room until I realized that
everybody had to go through our room to get to their own. lzio
laughed because I was embarrassed to have someone barge in on the
way to get a drink of water, right when I was kissing my husband. I
insisted at least that we hang a sheet over the window at night,
since the bed was in front of the window.
Though I did not want the rest of the world to share my life that
intimately, Guta was always welcome to come for supper. Now that
she was the only other one alive from either Izio's or my family,
she was the dearest person in Poland. She traded some of her clothes
for food, and Izio still managed to buy a few things, so the three
of us had a least some dinner every night. And we had warmth, even a
little hope. Not the wild, sweet dreams I had before, but still the
quiet strong will.
THEN THEY took me. Ten of us, including Guta, were pulled out of
the lines the next morning. They led us in the opposite direction of
the others. After a half an hour, they stopped us in front of a
railroad station. I grabbed Guta's arm. The trains ...they pushed
us into the building, watching us through the glass panels.
A strikingly handsome young German stepped out of the other room,
where the Gestapo had some sort of office. His skin was absolutely
white, 'his hair coal black, his muscular body drawn up into an
inhuman rigidness. He barked, "Around you are potato sacks. Here are
your knives. Peel the potatoes. I will be back." The door slammed
I cut into the first potato skin, almost afraid to move the knife
down the lumpy surface. I took a deep breath, assuring myself I was
still alive, and cut more firmly into the brown skin. On one of
those knobs, the curly band of peeling snapped, and I jerked the
knife away. I started into another bank of peeling, getting my thumb
in the way. Now blood started to seep from both of the cuts. I
watched the red spread itself. in blotches on the yellow-white
potatoes. I pressed my lips together hard, peeled another strip and
then another. It didn't really matter if they all got bloodied,
The young German burst into the room again, glanced at one or
two of us and grunted, "Faster." Then louder, "Faster!" I peeled
faster, looking away from, the potatoes and staring out through the
glass panels. From some distance away, I could hear the sounds of
The trains ...rushing across the silent earth ...rushing to end
thousand of lives ...to bring their bodies to the warmth of the
earth ...the trains ...big monsters.
They stopped right in front of our windows to shovel off the dead.
Before the war they had carried animals. Now their windows were
wired to keep the Jews in. And on the wires, strings hung down, each
one attached to a tin can for water. And the tin cans clanked
against the wires and against each other.
Inside the cars, the Jews were packed in, standing straight up, and
breathing in the stuff they had breathed put in a minute before.
"Water, water ..."
"Please, my baby's dying .. "
All along the platform, full water buckets were lined up in front of
the train. A platoon of the Gestapo stationed itself in front of
them, until the shrieks and pleas drove even them to dip out a few
cups of water and carry them over the wired windows. The desperate
little skeletons all grabbed for the cups at once, clawing at the
wires, while drops dripped off the cup, and staring while the Nazis
poured the water into the street. Then the dry little mouths and
cracked faces shrieked again, in the same tune as the clanking of
the tin cans.
Then the iron bars on the doors were lifted slightly, leaving an
open slit at the bottom. Through it, one by one, the rotten bodies
fell out into cardboard cartons next to the train. Usually they
rolled out in mechanical procession. The Germans were mechanical.
Occasionally, though, there was a break in the line, then what
looked like shuffling inside the train. Someone wouldn't let go of
his mother, probably ...then some sounds, and a quick shove through
the slot. One of the other Jews had been wise, and helped to tear it
from the sentimental one ...after all, they had to have room to
stand and breathe.
And hours after the train pulled away, I could still hear the
shuffling and groaning, and the unearthly cries. Now I had seen the
trip Mommy had taken.
Three hours later another train came, and another ...The same wild
little skeletons, and the same cries. We weren't allowed to leave
the room, of course. We peeled potatoes.
At night we tramped back to the ghetto, to different fears. And I,
to lzio again, to hide in his arms.
At night, when I tossed on the bed, I
heard the ugly, tortured sounds from the trains. I heard the voices.
And I saw the faces, shrieking as they vanished. And I listened to
the real night that was still, except for the heavy footfalls of the
Gestapo boots. I listened until daybreak, when the sun threw a pale
light on the ghetto walls. I watched all those walking dead,
bringing the streets to life.
Izio sensed the dread in me now. He understood the nightmares and
the sobs after work, and he watched the blisters blowing up all over
my hands, and the cuts starting to heal and breaking open again. So
he talked about other things.
"Jadzia, I'm the happiest Jew that ever lived. I have you. Most
people live a lifetime without knowing the love that we have. Let's
count every week a year, Jadzia. Maybe we can celebrate our
twenty-fifth anniversary that way."
Enchanted, I believed him. That was what I wanted too, because
somehow I was sure that our weeks were more important than anyone
else's years, anyway.
But listening to dreams was like listening to a fairy tale. I wanted
to hear more and more of the pretty words. From them I tried to soak
out all the whimsical happiness.
"You know, Izio, someday I'm going to be a good wife. I'm going to
bear you six children, and clean the house spotless, and then every
free hour I will write. I'm going to write a book, you know ...
about you Izio, about us together, and ... all about this. Now you
tell me. What will you do?"
It was a familiar game. He smiled indulgently, the way you smile at
a little child. "I'd love you."
"That's all? Just love me? Oh, Izio, tell me what else!"
"I'll think about that when I'm free."
I was disappointed. His eyes didn't shine anymore when he talked
about later. Now, like a little boy, he put his head on my shoulder
and fell asleep. Now I was the old one, watching over him, smoothing
his hair until I slept.
In the morning, Guta and I left again for the train station. Behind
the glass panels again, we peeled without watching. With our eyes
shut, we knew we wouldn't have to look at the lines of cars, the mad
faces, the bony hands poked through the cages. But we still heard
everything. The whistle, from a mile away, pierced into the air
around us. Then just rumbling wheels ... another jab of the whistle,
two more in a little spurt of sound, then clatter ... the roar
started to break up into horrible, recognizable sounds. Now the
train didn't thunder, it was the metal wheels grinding into the
track, grunting under the load of thousands of wailing shadows ...
and the tin cans clanked on the wires, sometimes they swung back and
forth across grating on the mesh. I flung two potatoes into the
water bucket besides me, and splashed, plunking into the wet,
settling to the bottom. For a second, their sound drowned out a
scream or a clank, while the train let off a chorus of wails and
croaking or whatever the Jews could force out of cracked mouths
whose saliva had gone dry.
Say it again! We couldn't peel any faster if we tried, but maybe
you'll drown out the yelps for mercy!
Then the creaking wheels again, and the whistle ... the steam
breathing sound of the engine, the last audible calls, the clawing
at the wires ... melting into just a roar, a very impersonal roar.
I opened my eyes again and stared into an empty picture of cement
and track. I heard the door from the office open again and close.
The young German walked across the floor. Several feet away from me
he stopped and pointed. "You." He moved his finger toward the door.
I walked into the office, sank into the chair he pointed to, and
waited for some sort of offer. He grinned, watched to see my
reaction, then started to talk. His voice was smoother than I ever
thought German could sound. He looked me over as he spoke in that
friendly, confidential tone. I knew what to expect.
"I've been watching you for several days now. How old are you?"
"Eighteen," I whispered what I hoped
would be a convincing lie. Fifteen would have sounded ridiculous.
"Have you ever played the piano?"
"Do you have a husband?"
"Well, your hands are too beautiful to peel potatoes. In fact, you
don't even look like a Jew. From now on, you will work here in the
"Later on, I'll take you to my house. You can help my wife." He
pointed to the broom in the corner, and pulled out a rag from one of
the desk drawers. I took it from him, and started toward the file
While I dusted the spotless furniture, rubbing over the shine that
was already there, I felt his eyes following me around the room.
Over again to the cabinets, then the empty chair ... polishing,
rubbing the same spots ... staring at the rag and the shiny wood ...
aware of the man watching.
Those evenings I never told Izio about my new job. I remembered the
Tannenbaum girl. I knew Izio was jealous anyway. If anything
happened, why should he have to know? For the first time, I tried to
hide something from Izio, and it knotted everything up inside me.
After a few days, the German seemed to change. He didn't smile. He
still stared, following me around the room with his eyes. But the
eyes no longer coaxed, and the smooth words disappeared. Now he was
cold, sharp, his eyes flashed spite. For two days he didn't bring me
The next afternoon, before lunch time, I started to dust his books
for the fourth time since I came. He was sitting at the desk,
ruffling through some papers. I heard the rattling stop. Dead
silence. I breathed in and out deliberately, slowly forgetting to
move the dust rag. I waited, gradually moving from fear to panic.
I pivoted slowly into a three-quarter turn, and faced him from the
side of the desk.
He got up from the chair, and leaned over into my face.
"Never lie to a German," he growled whacking my face with the back
of his hand. When you go back, he won't be there."
I backed towards the door, looking straight into his face. He turned
Peeling the brown skins again, faster than before, I tried to gauge
the time till evening. He could have lied. They were all spiteful.
There would have been no way to know about Izio unless someone had
told him. And even desperate, jealous Jews would not have told.
Logic wasn't much comfort, and I hated the Nazi more for lying.
When they led us home that evening. I thought our line must have
been first until I saw my friends at the gate. Then Izio must be
late. They all talked at once, and I couldn't understand anything
for a few minutes. Then, "Izio's gone!"
Twenty men had been pulled out of the line on the way home. Now they
were in the three-story house right outside the wires, ready to be
sent to crematoriums when the next train came in.
Every knot that had been twisted inside me for a week snapped. All
the nightmares and shouts and bullets exploded in me, billowing out
into a hot frenzy. It was like a cauldron had been boiling in me
with the top lid on, and all of a sudden everything poured out,
blowing off the lid, and letting off steam and hot liquid in
geysers. I grabbed onto the fence, and dug my hands into the wires.
I hung there shrieking to him, collapsing to the ground with my
hands still tearing at the fence. The weight of my body pulled my
arms down, while the wires slashed into my fingers.
They must have pulled me away from the fence and given me something
from the infirmary. I remember very little of that except that when
I woke up, I was ready to try the wall. There weren't as many Nazi's
out patrolling in the night, and I didn't see what difference it
would make if they sent one more away on the train.
I hadn't realized that Guta wasn't with me. Now she came into the
"Jadzia, come with me."
"No, Guta. I'm staying here. It doesn't matter now."
I couldn't tell her I was going over the wall. I didn't want her to
come with me.
"Guta, why? Where?"
"To the other side. Izio's free."
She grabbed my hand, pushing me in front of her to the door. Then
she took the lead, and together we crept down the stairs. As we
went, she whispered the instructions.
"It's a space between the roof and the ceiling. You have to lie
flat, and you're not allowed to talk. You must not even whisper in
the daytime. Somebody will bring food up at night."
I hardly listened to the words. I kept saying to myself, "He's
alive. He's alive and I will be there with him."
I walked so fast that she could hardly keep up with me. Across the
back yards, through the streets on our side of the fence to the last
two-story building before the wires. Two men were holding a ladder
up to a hole in the outside wall, where some planks had been knocked
Clambering up the ladder, I squeezed through the dark little slit
between the roof and the floor. Seeing the shoulders and hair all
covered with hay, I didn't even look at his face. I crawled up to
him threw my arms around him, and kissed his face, wetting it with
tears. With his hand, he lifted up my chin, and wiped the tears with
two fingers. Then he put the fingers over my lips.
"Shh, baby. Every married couple is entitled to this." "Izio, why do
you make me laugh now?"
"After all, you wouldn't want to celebrate our twenty-fifth
anniversary without having a honeymoon?"
In the daytime, we lay stiff. We didn't dare whisper. We just
listened to the sounds ... boots, once in a while voices or rifles.
In the evenings, when the patrollers thinned out, we talked a little
Somebody pushed a bowl of water and food for the next day through
the hole after it got dark. While the others slept, they emptied the
bucket we used for a toilet.
Izio and I looked out from the straw pile. Sometimes we didn't say
anything for hours. No more dreams.
For a week we lay there, waiting and listening. As the nights and
days dragged on into each other we finally admitted there was
nothing to wait for.
"Izio, you know this is the end." He covered my mouth.
"Jadzia, if something happens to me, you must promise that you won't
"I will not promise! I promised Mommy, not again! Please, Izio, when
you are gone, my life will be gone. Enough despair. It's enough." I
promised Izio nothing. I promised myself that nothing would ever
separate us, and resigned myself to wait.
It must have been early in the morning that we heard the shuffling
outside. It was still dark, but they had brought food hours ago. The
ladder clanked against the outside wall. I shot a look at Izio. Then
"Jadzia, you can come out!" It was Guta. "Come down, it's safe."
Confused, we pulled ourselves out of the hiding place and down the
Guta and two men I didn't know were waiting for us at the bottom.
"Come down, we have a place for you to stay."
We followed them to one of the houses in the middle of the ghetto.
There were four other couples in our room, but they had prepared a
clean bed for us, and cleared a corner of the room.
Until then, we hadn't had time to ask how we'd been saved. Guta
explained that she'd gotten help from the underground. They were
building a tunnel, but she couldn't tell us where or who. The boy
who was the leader came from Kalisz, their headquarters was in the
building where we'd been hiding and he had set up our escape, but
the Germans found him and killed him the night before we got out.
Now that they knew about the headquarters, it wasn't safe to be in
We talked until morning, when we left for work again. Guta had
signed us up for the ammunition factory, Hasak.
The Jewish police lined us up in six lines. The men went first,
hundreds, and behind them, hundreds of women. Every Jew who could
still walk was in those lines. We already knew that staying in the
ghetto during the day was asking to be killed, but there had always
been the same danger even at work. Now we felt if there was one
place they needed hands it was at Hasak. If we could just get to
work every day, we might be able to stay alive.
I watched the lines of heads in front of me. "Dear Izio, it's good
that you're so tall! I can see your head above the others."
We walked past the last signs of the city ... past houses and the
stores, out into a bare place where there seemed to be nothing. In
the city, along the road, the Poles had stopped in little bunches to
stare as we went by. Out here near the factory, there was no one
around to stare. Just blank dustiness.
There were about a dozen separate buildings. Most of them brick, a
few glass paneling. Inside, we found them to be huge open halls.
Each one had a hundred and fifty machines, all pounding and
hammering at once and giving off oily smells. The oil smells caught
themselves up with the burning coal and steaming fumes from acid
kettles while wheels ripping iron sheets moulded the shells.
Outside, groups of Poles were building barracks some distance from
Guta and I were assigned to measure shells and pack them in cases.
We worked in an assembly line: check, measure, weigh, polish, pack,
twenty-three of us and two Poles. In our room, three other lines
checked, measured, weighed, polished, packed. Ninety-one of us and
six of them. Again we found a market of exchange, pillows for sugar,
sheets for zlotys. Now Guta and I were on the other end ... instead
of bringing the clothes and linen back from the big ghetto, we took
it from the others and traded with the Poles.
But we were getting too comfortable. The next day, when we were on
the way to work, one of the Nazis boomed at us to stop.
"Whoever is smuggling anything from the ghetto to sell to the Poles,
drop it now. From now on, any Jew caught with goods under his
clothes will be dealt with. He swung his whip in through the air,
and listened to the whistle it made.
From the lines of workers around him on the piazza, clothes and bed
linen started to drop. Women pulled towels and sheets out from under
their blouses, and the men unwrapped the extra clothes from around
their waists. We dropped the things in piles that kept building for
Over in the other part of the line, I watched Izio drop a few
The Nazi started around the circle, glaring the faces,
watching for a guilty one. He cracked his whip on his boots. The
leather on leather smacked a satisfied smack, almost as satisfied as
the German's grin. He stopped in front of me.
He reached out his hand, and ripped the clothes off the girl next to
She stood there, shivering in her slip, not daring to look at the
mound of blouses and pillow cases at her feet. She lifted up her
slip and pulled out another skirt, a dress. She unwound the sheet
from around her legs, and dropped it with the rest. Then she took a
step back. The German snickered, and grabbed at her brassiere,
ripping it off. A baby's dress fell out, and landed in the heap.
Then the whistle of leather in the air, and the snap as it went
through flesh. A red welt swelled into a streak down her back.
Another snap, then again. The slashes puffed in crosshatching and
turned blue from the cold. She crouched over, covering her face with
both arms so the whip couldn't get at it. And howled and groaned
into the whistling air ... then fell still.
"Schneller! Back to the lines!"
She reached out for her dress beside her on the ground. The black
boot shot out, clamped itself on the rag.
She dragged herself up to a half-standing crouch, and took her place
beside me in the line. We started back to the ghetto. The lines were
slow, and a freezing wind was make most of us cold. We weren't
allowed to talk, we just moved. "Schneller." I unbuttoned my
sweater, and handed it back behind my skirt. The guard saw it, threw
me a dirty look. But he didn't stop us again.
She hadn't cried when they beat her, but now I could hear quiet
crying sounds beside me. "Thanks," she managed.
We tramped along the open road now, and it was no longer dry ground,
but open waters. Waves splashed us, washing away nostalgia and
drowning us in doom of bloody days. Occasionally we hit a rock, a
swinging tin cup, a beating in the street, or twenty men pulled from
the line and sent to be cremated, but the rocks were sharper than
the sea for only a minute. They were, after all, only sign posts of
our hopelessness. For there was no end to the sea, no dry place
among the waves, and there was always hope that a rock might sink
our wired-in boat for good so that we would not have to keep afloat
Now that we couldn't sell clothes and linen from the big ghetto,
little Czestochowa started to disintegrate. We ate only the bread
and soup from the big kitchen. It was winter, and the hospital was
filled with Jews who stood out in the lines too long. The rest of us
waited for morning and work, wondering whether they'd take us to a
train station or the factory. But as long as we weren't lying sick
in our rooms when the Germans made the daily rounds, there was still
A Baby ... Almost
ONE MORNING I did wake up sick. I was dizzy and down in my stomach
everything was turning inside-out. I pulled myself up off the
pillow, and everything started to spin around me. My head was heavy
and I wanted to fall back onto the cot again, but I dressed for
At Hasak, all the buildings took the lunch break at the same time.
Izio and I managed to meet then in his building, behind one of the
generators or a stack of cartons. That afternoon I just looked at
the grey pool in the plate.
"Eat it, Jadzia. I don't want you to save it for me." The black
potato eyes floating in the grey turned my stomach.
"I can't, Izio."
That evening I stumbled back in the lines, exhausted. I knew I had
to see a doctor, but I was terrified of being found sick, and of
what he might tell me.
I told Izio one evening that I had to see a friend, that I'd be back
He wasn't easy to convince. He insisted on coming with me. Finally,
I got away.
I walked into the street, pushed through the groups. I was afraid. I
ran. At the infirmary I signed my name at the little wooden table
near the door and moved into the room. It was wide and empty, and
the light from the gas lamp on the table made the room a kind of
grayish yellow. The walls and floors made a kind of sickly hole
where the scared ones like me crawled in and around me, shriveling
little bodies sat on steps, crates, on the floor.
Everything twisted itself around in my mind. Without thinking, I
paced around the boxes and the old men sitting on the floor. I
walked in a circle past each one, then around past them all again.
It wasn't that I thought about them at all. I hardly looked at them,
but I would not stand and watch the door.
They called my name. Into the other room, questions, more questions,
examination, a question, dates? I don't know how long, or when,
please. I just don't remember. "But you're barely a child."
"No, I'm not." I started to cry, and brought the certificate out of
"You're pregnant. You have to get rid of it as soon as you can."
Another question, then an answer. I ran out of the office, into the
streets, I kept running, until I had to rest against the side of a
building. Then I walked, anywhere, time to think. How can I tell
Happy news for the expectant father. "Your wife's almost sure to be
sent to a crematorium soon. As soon as they find her like that."
I got to our room. Pushing the door open, I tried to look away. Izio
was sitting at our table. His eyes were full of questions. 1 walked
to the window, turned my back to him. Oh, if only I could be
protected still by the tender, understanding eyes, the soft, wise
face ... but I could not look at him now and watch his eyes soak up
pain and his face twist when he understood.
"Izio, I have something to tell you."
"Well, baby, you always have something to tell me."
"No, Izio, don't
joke. I'm serious."
"Jadzia, you're always serious." I pictured him smiling behind me.
"This is different, Izio."
"Everything you say is different, baby."
"Stop it. I'm going to have
a baby, Izio."
The room was absolutely silent. I waited for him to reassure me, to
"Are you sure?"
Then I heard a little choke, and muffled sound. Then he broke into
sobs. I turned to see him, his face buried in his arms, his slender
body heaving as he cried ... he didn't try to control it, and the
table wobbled on its uneven legs from the force of his weight. I
threw my arms around him and covered his neck and face with kisses.
I held his head to my breast and felt the tears coming wet through
"Please, Izio, don't cry. Not now. Remember when we lay under the
roof, you were the one who said we were entitled to have a
honeymoon. You said we should count weeks as years. I'm a woman. You
don't want me to be married twenty-five years without a baby."
It wasn't much of a joke. I wanted to be
done with it soon. But time didn't run that way, and I knew there
would be more days of routine until we could raise enough money for
The hours of work were terribly long now. I had time to think about
everyone who had been taken, about how they had died ... Aron,
Daddy, Karola burning in Warsaw, and Mommy brought to ashes at
Treblinka, Lolek ... who knows where ... and Henoh ... maybe dead,
maybe still ... afloat.
I ran my fingers over the shell ... who would this one kill? The
dead steel felt cold in my hand. It was a part of Deutschland uber
alles ... helping them to the final victory, packing their shells
and dusting their crates, and measuring so there would be no
And I was sick of the dirty business of staying alive ... sick of
the Gestapo and sick of hearing trains ... I hated so totally that
it was squeezing out all the other feelings in me. I hated the
Nazis, I hated them and everything they had done to me ...for
ripping my family away, and for stealing all my hopes, for making me
give up this life in my womb ...I hated them and wished
with all my might they would be cursed with walls and wires and
hunger someday. But all the hating and wishing didn't change
anything ...not the pain and pity in Izio's eyes, not my own fear.
It was a long way back to the ghetto. Every day it was longer, and
every night in the room a tired struggle for a way.
In our basement Lolek had hidden a box of money, but Lolek might
still be alive. The money wasn't ours. Our wedding rings might bring
enough money, but neither of us could give them up.
We pulled the sheets off the bed the next morning, and wrapped them,
with some extra clothes around us. We were both skinny now, so they
wouldn't notice the extra bulk, we thought.
At work, the German orders and the grinding machines mixed in the
terrible tumult inside my head. The steel banged onto the floor ...
another netful, into the acid ... spattering ... then the hollow
clank of steel against iron stands and the buzz-rip of the wheels
"Schneller! Juden, Schneller!" spit of the acid onto the floor
clank, buzz-rip ... check, measure, weigh, polish ... drip
"Schneller! spit ... pack ... check, measure ... "Schneller."
Oh, please make this day go fast. As soon as we had lined up out on
the piazza, the men's lines started to fill in. I caught a look at
Izio's face among them. He smiled. He had the money. I tried to
smile back, to show him I was happy. I wasn't and I couldn't smile.
Instead, I felt tears welling up in my eyes, and I tried to hold
On the way home, I whispered out the whole story to Guta. She
promised that she would be with me.
That night I lay close to Izio, wanting him to talk to me, to tell me
everything would be all right. I wanted to be alive, I wanted him to
tell me I would live. But he was afraid, too, and I realized now
that he felt guilty. "Its my fault ... it's my fault ... my fault
... I'm sorry, baby ... its all my fault."
I didn't understand. "It's what we both wanted, Izio." Out he cried,
still, and now I tried to comfort him. I couldn't soothe the guilt,
but I understood his fear too well. A little door off the waiting
room, the man inside in a hurry, the SS checking ...
It was just light when Izio, Guta and I started for the infirmary.
We didn't talk much. We'd said just about everything.
I kissed Izio at the door, and walked into the little room. The
nurse had to help my unbutton my clothes. She helped me up onto the
I knew there had been enough money to get ether. So they would kill
that pain ... the one deep down where life was growing, the one in
my bowels when they scraped it all out. But they wouldn't still the
hurt and shame of killing my baby - my baby that was alive, because
we loved, because in the middle of this filthy world a man and I had
found something pure and good. And now I let them rip it out, so we
could keep on living in the dirty world.
The disinfectant smell hung heavy over the room, except right around
the table. Here the bleachy sheet smell was stronger. A nurse took
some instruments out of a steamy pot, and laid them on the table
next to me. I wouldn't look at the shiny, sharp points ... I turned
away to watch the windows, draped with sheets. They shut out most of
the light from outside, so most of the room was light morning grey.
Over in the corner I could make out a few steel cabinets and a gas
stove. There were two other tables, but this was the only one with a
light - a wide, white one, hung on some wire from the ceiling.
The doctor, in white, slammed the door behind him, and walked over
to a sink behind the stove. I watched him rub lather into his hands
and face. He made some remarks to the nurse. I wanted him to talk to
me. To say anything, ask my name, notice I was fifteen, but he was
a busy man. There was a line outside, and none of them had time to
wait for conversation.
I wished they would hurry before the German patrol came to pick up
the sick. I watched the eyes of the face that was covered with a
white mask. Her hand jerked out suddenly, clamping ether-soaked
cotton over my nose and mouth. I choked into the cotton.
"Jeden, dwa, trzy, cztery ... " I wanted to use my hands. I wanted
to push the smelly cotton away. But my arms were tied down to the
table. "Piec, cziesc, siedem .... "I'm falling, Mommy ... help,
Mommy, I'm falling ... deeper into a black nothing ... Izio, stop
me! Help me ... Izio ..."
I opened my eyes. I couldn't see clearly, but I felt a hand clasping
My mouth was dry and bitter.
"Please, some water."
Someone brought a glass up to my mouth. I looked down into the
water, sipped a little from the top. I tried to see everything
without the blur ... lines of beds. That was all. I tried to
remember. My eyes closed again, exhausted from the effort.
I felt a searing pain in my waist, then lower, another and another,
then all around me.
"Help, please!" I opened my eyes on Izio, bent over me. "Please
don't leave me."
His hand tightened its grip over mine. "I never will, baby." Guta
was behind him, crying. From out of the darkness, I was not alone.
After two hours, I had to give up the bed to somebody else. Guta and
Izio helped me out, and supported me between them. I was losing a
lot of blood, and we had to find a bed for me for the next couple of
days. But the Germans checked every room in the ghetto every day
and they never missed anybody.
We decided on trying the basement under our room. It was really a
square opening under the bed, with enough room for a half-size cot.
Izio propped a chair between the two floors, so he and Guta could
get down to me from our room. They could check on me after work, but
they both refused to go. We argued and reasoned, and I was close to
"Why should we risk all three of us when you two can do nothing for
me here? We could never all stay quiet down there, and they'd find
us right away and kill us all." Izio insisted he would not leave and
Guta pleaded with us to let her stay. In the morning though, she
agreed to go, reassured a little because Izio would be with me.
The basement was damp. Broken cobwebs hung down from the corners and
spread themselves along the boards of the floor above. Rats
scratched across the floor through the dirt and into another hole on
the other side of the wall. The fat, dark shapes chased under the
cot, partially hidden by the color of the floor. It was the same wet
In one corner lay a pile of rotten potatoes, stored once for the
Now they were decaying, spreading their sour smell all through the
damp. A few streaks of light and some air came through the cracks
between the bricks, where the mortar had fallen out.
We lay close to each other on the narrow cot. Now, as we heard them
lining up outside we didn't move or whisper. Then we heard them move
In the empty building, the few boots in the streets, then in the
other rooms, sounded like platoons of hundreds. Then the door to our
room banged open. They had not missed it. Heavy boots above us. We
grabbed each other. Even the rats stopped. The only things that
moved were the cobwebs, waving under the heaviness on the floor. The
door slammed shut. Still.
The wet, brown days passed, two of them, broken only by the sound of
Guta, home from work, and the night hours in the room upstairs.
After that I went to work again with the rest. I was weak and still
bleeding, but I knew eventually Izio and I would be killed in the
Nothing was the same anymore. We changed. We grew older, sadder. We
didn't love anymore like two happy kids. We didn't build any
castles. Instead of talking about the future, we spoke only about
what had been before. For the first time, Izio told me how dear
Lolek had been to him ... how good he had been to Izio's sister,
Regina, and how devoted to their little girl. And about how close
Lolek had been to Izio's family, another son. Izio's parents had
been so proud of Lolek, the intelligent, successful young man. Until
the day we were married, Lolek and Izio had been inseparable,
confiding in one another, holding on to each other as the last of a
family: "I'm going to write a letter to him at Skarzysko, Jadzia.
One of the Poles at work said he could get it over there, I want
Lolek to know about everything ... about us and what happened ...
about how right he was, and how wrong."
I saw that letter the next day, lying open on the table.
It may be that I am much older now than when I first confided that I
was in love. Then I chose not to listen to what you said. Now I
understand it was true. I have been more afraid for Jadzia than for
myself all these days. Yet I think you knew that fear once yourself.
We almost did bring another life into our world, yet we killed it to
save ourselves. Somehow, I think you know what pain we feel for
Lolek, you must know that we had beautiful hours, scraps of days
together. After the hours in the factory, she gave me love and
warmth, a home. She shared my wild dreams long after everyone else
had given up. And when we both stopped hoping, she shared minutes
and hours for what they were.
Today is bad. We don't know if we have a tomorrow. But, Lolek, if I
had lived a normal man's life, it could not have been more full than
my days with Jadzia. If there is such a thing in this world, she has
been my happiness.
I walked out to the others. The sun had a special brightness this
I felt a little strength. I was full now, where I had been empty a
AT HASAK, that day, they didn't lead us into the factory. They
marched us into an empty hall, standing us against the walls. One of
the guards stepped out into the middle of the floor. "You are not
going back to the ghetto."
Days ... maybe years ...knowing it would come eventually ...
watching trains, sure that we would be on them one day ... listening
to the cups rattle and the wheels grind or watching the train to
death as we stood with the ones saved ... we had not been fooled by
the delay. But now, we were the death group, and now we wanted to
live more fiercely than ever before.
"The ghetto was burned down this morning. If you hid some other
Juden there, they burned with it. From now on, this is your
concentration camp. We're building barracks now. Until they are
ready, you'll sleep in the empty halls, women and men separate."
All those days when there had been rumors of the camp, we'd worn
extra clothes, taken what we had to work. Today there hadn't been
"At five tomorrow morning, and every morning from now on, you will
line up in the back court to be counted. Your Jewish policemen will
Counted ...like the children sent to "special jobs," like the trains
sent to "work camps," like the lines waiting for "showers" and
"volunteers" for office work ... that's how we would be counted.
Half of you will work night shift, half day shift. The patrollers
will be watching you. Disobey them and you will be killed. The same
goes for anyone who tries to get out."
No more corner to ourselves ... hot even the nights now ... Izio,
maybe we will see each other sometimes.
"You can go."
The circle, around the walls, broke up slowly. Some of the women
just stood where they were. Most of us moved towards the door. In
the crowd, a few cried for sick husbands, or old mothers, left
behind. Most followed the line to work.
In the machine room we Saw huge steel kettles steaming in the middle
of the floor. They sat on wooden platforms with wheels. Later on we
found out the steaming stuff was coffee. It was black and bitter,
and there was something sour-stale about the way it smelled, like
boiled garbage water. It was breakfast.
Now it didn't matter how long the workday lasted. We didn't have to
walk back to anywhere or go anywhere at night.
But the midday siren did matter. At least for today, Izio and I
could still meet at the old place at lunch time. I grabbed the bread
they gave me and ran to the other building.
But for minutes we both sat there on boxes, gnawing at the bread and
saying nothing. We hardly had a chance to collect all the words we
wanted to say ...and before we said much of anything, the siren
The hours at work dragged by, confused, I tried to think out what
had happened, tried to imagine what would come next. Now I couldn't
trust the routine fears I had learned in the ghetto. I wouldn't know
where to find the openings in the floor. I wouldn't know where the
boot steps would be or when. I was sunk with the rest, in a place
where I did not know what to fear.
At the moment that the siren started to blast, three giant doors
swung open, and the Jewish policemen shouted, "Line up!" We shuffled
"This way to your sleeping quarters!"
Led to a huge hall, we saw from the doorway rows of double bunks
lined up against the walls. Tearing into the room we raced to the
bunks, grabbing onto the frames to claim them. In one of the
corners, a mob was tearing at the pile of blankets and pillows, and
the rest of us pulled at whatever they got, trying to rip away
something for ourselves. Straw and dust from the mattresses fell all
over the floor and us, and dirt billowed up from the cots and floor,
making the air grey and heavy. Guta and I hung onto the same frame.
It was newly-cut and yellow, and still splintery. Around us, the
ones who didn't get bunks were dragging straw sacks off a stack near
the blankets, and pulling them over near the bunks.
That night I lay awake next to Guta. I kissed Izio. Maybe, when they
build the barracks, we'll have a chance to be together again.
The siren authorized morning. Like the sounds of the factory, it
In its wake, pounding metal and grinding and spatter hardly sounded
at all. For the siren registered days as days, and broke the morning
from the afternoon, and signaled night. And the siren recognized
Sunday from the rest, and didn't blow that one morning in the week.
One Sunday the women who were alone washed clothes and hung them
over the sills to dry. But the rest of us were allowed to see our
husbands or brothers in the other barracks. Usually Izio came to our
hall, though. He and Guta and I sat on our bunk, the lower one, and
talked ...about who slept beside us and was it really a camp and the
trains pulled in for an hour today and did you see who was on them
Next to death it hurt to talk about death, and talking about life
was insane. So we talked some more about the coffee and the bunks
and the steel and the shells and the siren ... and about being
We were hungrier now than ever in the ghetto. There, there had
always been a way to get something extra. We had traded our clothing
and we had bought a few things outright. But now we couldn't trade
and we couldn't buy. and we couldn't even steal anymore.
At lunchtime, we argued over the black bread. Izio said I wasn't
well yet.He looked pale to me.
"You're a woman. I'm stronger than you."
"You work harder than we
do. Eat it."
Just as we sat around the table in Warsaw, and argued over the
Usually we each chewed on our own slice as we walked back to work.
After two days, Izio decided we had to exchange our wedding rings
for food. I didn't mind giving it up now. I would give up anything
so that we would not be so hungry. I slipped the band off my finger
... just hours ago we had been married.
The certificate was already gone, buried in the rubble and ashes of
the ghetto, now the rings, too ... they were only signs for everyone
else. We didn't need any reminders. But when you lose your wedding
ring, you lose your luck ...
No matter, nothing to lose.
There were more Germans over us now. They were civilians. Healthy
Germans were sent to the front, so that left the murderers,
homosexuals, sadists, drug addicts, and convicts to run the camps.
Their lurid achievements qualified them for Hitler's helpers. Human
beasts, they cracked the whip and grinned when it snapped flesh.
They grinned when the Jew winced, then the lackey bled.
But we are not lackeys. We are not beasts or criminals, no matter
how long you beat and how many you kill. We are not cannibals and
wild men until you drive and drive, and even then we shall remain
proud. Even then we shall be more human than the guards and the
whipcrackers. We are men and women, and if that is not sacred to
you, it is to us as long as we continue to exist. You may starve us
and humiliate us, you may wipe us out on the earth, but you shall
never have your victory, German. For you shall never destroy our
honor. And you shall never wipe out good.
In the part of the factory where I worked with Guta, two German
women were in charge. We called them Carrot and Parsnip, mostly for
watchwords when we saw them coming. They were both about six feet
tall, both long and skinny. These faces were stone, flat and rigid.
They always wore black, to show that their husbands had been killed
A Polish girl, about nineteen, worked with them. Her name was Irka.
Without any reason, she took pleasure in beating the Jews, and
watching the question and hate in their faces. Raised among us, she
knew who to hurt. Picking out one of the older women, Irka made it a
point to walk by her in the factory and spit in her face. And she
spoke our language. That was the most dangerous thing. Speaking
Polish, she was the shrewdest spy in camp. Irka enjoyed herself. She
There was a Jewish woman among them, her name was Irka, too. She was
in charge of the office, and a small section of the factory. Most of
the women despised her, probably because her work was easier than
ours. But I never saw her hit one of the women, and I can't believe
she would have spied. She was like the rest of us, looking for a
When the German women had a day off, the men took over their jobs at
the factory. They were less complex. There were outright animals.
Their faces were brutal and cold, but their eyes were hot with
insanity. They used the whips better than the women did. We did
everything they told us. But they beat us just the same.
On one of those days when the men were overseeing the factory, I was
called out of the assembly line.
"You, the Jew with the long fingers."
He pointed to another machine under the window across the hall. It
was one of four small ones in a row on one table, and there were
about forty others along that side of the room. All the tables were
filled but this one.
Two men carried over a crate of shells that had been taken out of
the acid bath. They were left over from the front, so the rust had
to be taken off before they were sent out again.
I pressed the button under my table and watched the metal brush
start to vibrate. I pushed one of the shells over the brush and
heard the bussing when the wire scraped out the rust. I had to hold
the shell with both hands to keep it from being jerked away by the
force of the bristles. The shell got hot quickly, then starting from
the inside, spreading out to the surface, and burning my hands. I
took the shell off for a minute, then when it cooled a little,
pushed it back on for another polishing. Every shell went through
the brushing four or five times, and they never cooled much after
the first brushing.
The machine table was only about two feet off the floor, at my
knees, so I bent down over the machine to hold the shell on. After a
few hours, I didn't bother to straighten up between shells, and after a few days I couldn't. All the while, I breathed in
rust, seared from the shells. I could feel it, like a grainy powder,
up in my nose, all over my tongue, and down in my throat. It was
hard and grisly, and it tasted sharp. I could feel it cutting into
my gums and above my nostrils.
The sound of the powerful whistle was again in the air. I
straightened out my aching body, with half stiff fingers, grabbed
the slice of bread. It was only a few minutes to the hiding place.
Like sunshine from the darkness was Izio's smile. We fell into each
others arms, grateful for the half an hour so-called ours. Five
minutes was enough to eat the slice of bread. Izio's hands were
soothing my sore fingers with gentle caresses.
"Jadzia, have I ever told you, you have the most beautiful hands I
have ever seen?"
"Yes, Izio, you told me many times." I looked up at his face, his
eyes were moist with tears. I put my head on his lap not to see the
sadness they showed.
"Jadzia," his voice was trembling, "I would give my life to get you
out of here."
I threw my arms around his neck. "What foolishness, your life is my
life, it won't be any good to go on without you. Please, Izio, we do
have hopes. They need hands for work, maybe we have a chance. Let's
not give up, not now. Maybe when things get organized, they will
give us more food. The war must come to an end you know." I didn't
believe myself what I said. I knew Izio didn't, but there was no
time for long conversation. A loud whistle, a kiss, a brief embrace
and then rush back to work, like anything else being late wasn't
tolerated. A few days went by, the same routine - unbearable hunger,
and one wonderful luxury, hot showers after work. I wasn't the first
one to take the shower, but the rumor got around, no gas, real
At the door of the shower room while I was waiting my turn to go in,
a German placed a few cases of soap right near my feet. The soap was
grey and on every piece were the letters "JF." "It's made of Juden
fats," said the German with a big, ugly grin on his face. We thought
it was a joke. The inside of the shower room was steaming hot.
Wooden benches were placed along the sides of the walls. At a wooden
table were two Jewish girls passing out stiff white towels. Our hair
was checked for nits or lice. If they found any, a hair cut close to
the skin would follow. In the center of the shower room was a large
stone square partitioned with a wooden fence above it were
twenty-five showers. The water felt good after a day of hard labor,
but not even here were we given privacy. Many times groups of German
soldiers would stand around and watch us. The showers were a
pleasant surprise, but we knew many other things were in store for
us and not so pleasant. There wasn't time for me to run out to see
Izio during lunch time, when I saw his tall figure next to me. In
brief words he told me about being transferred to the night shift.
Twenty men were picked from the group in which Izio worked. The
Jewish attendant had to made sure they were in good health, and had
college educations. Twelve midnight was the time when the night
shift was entitled to a half an hour's rest. I crawled down from my
cot and went into the factory. The lights burned my eyes after the
darkness of the sleeping quarters. Izio told me how he pleaded with
the Jewish attendant to keep him on the day shift, but was asked to
give him money. Now we could see each other twice. Izio would get up
in the day time and come to see me on my lunch hour; this did not
last long. It was two days later when I heard Irka's voice. "How
handsome he is for a Jew, who is he?" She looked at Izio. "You are
coming here too often, my, oh my, what a handsome Jew you are." She
walked away. I pleaded with Izio not to come to see my any more. I
feared this Polish spy more than the Germans, we all did. It seemed
that all our dreams and hopes were dying away. We were still lucky
we could see each other and we were alive.
One particular day I went to Izio's dormitory during lunch time. He
wasn't feeling well, his face was burning with a temperature. When I
kissed his hot flushed face, he kept assuring me that it was just a
little cold, but no Jew would dare stay away from work just as long
as he could walk. The factory whistle cut through the air like a
knife. I promised to see him at twelve. How long this day was, it
seemed endless. The worry about his health was torturous. The pain
shut inside me was whining like an imprisoned inmate after work. I
felt a scaring loneliness. I lay on my cot in the darkness of the
night, hoping the whistle would come sooner. I knew there was little
I could do to help him get better, but still I wanted to be near
him. No, I was not divine, I felt the pain, and I longed for life for
both of us.
Impatiently I walked out in the night, I crept unnoticed into our
usual meeting place and breathlessly waited for Izio to come. How
good it was to see him beside me. His face was pale and the brown
eyes seemed enormously big in his sunken cheeks. It seemed like the
freshness of his youth was gone, but the smile was there, the smile
I loved so much, and the tenderness when he looked at me, the want
and the burning desire. So little time! "How do you feel, Izio?" So
many questions, so many answers, and the disappointed look of a
little boy when it was time to go. "I love you, Izio, don't ever
forget it." "I love you too," and tears, more tears, no end to them. Love was torture, love in the arms of
death. No, I could not endure the look in his eyes. "I love you,
Izio." I ran out.
In the barracks once more, I didn't bother to take my clothes off. I
was so cold. I just had time to warm my feet under the rough
blanket, when a German voice through the loud speaker froze the
blood in me. The message was brief and well understood.
"Every Jew in a half hour's time will stand in front of the factory
near his department. Don't take anything with you. Every Jew after
the half hour found in the dormitory will be shot."
All lights were lit, their yellow reflections focused on the groups
of frightened people made them look more dead than alive. In a
period of a few minutes we were dressed. Holding on to a friend or
cot partner, we started pushing through the doors. I held on to my
sister's hand. The night air was freezing and made me shiver from
the cold. We were all assembled now. We knew the fear, the familiar
scene, understood well what was going to be next. I could see the
group of men with whom Izio worked at the far end. I looked for his
dear face, but couldn't see it. I felt numb. The SS was coming
closer. I could hear Guta's voice, "Stand straight." I felt her hand
pinching my ghostly white cheeks, but the Germans weren't interested
in the young girls.
They were taking men and women in their thirties. Those intelligent
men and Jewish police and some young ones whom the Germans felt
shouldn't be around to tell what was done to them. The German passed
us by. We were
safe! I grabbed Guta's hand.
"I know they have taken Izio." She shushed me to be quiet and told
me I was crazy. But I knew it. I could feel the tragedy, my mouth
parted in a gasp for air. The grief was so deep. I looked around
with despair and bitterness. The order was given to go back to the
dormitories. We trampled over each other in order to get there fast.
I passed by Izio's Jewish attendant. "Where is he?" I asked. He
didn't look at me, but I did not need an answer. I knew it. "You
killed him, and the thought of it shall never give you peace." I
stood and could not move; everybody was gone, except Guta. I felt
the stillness of the night. I looked at her small figure beside me.
"Please, Guta, let me go with him, I can't go on living like this."
Her lips were trembling. "I will go with you, Jadzia, I don't want
to be left alone."
We started crawling back beside the buildings. Every time we saw a
German guard, we lay flat still and breathless until his footsteps
quieted down. The building to which Izio and the others were taken
was at the far end of the factory, right near the outside gate. I
kept thinking what I would do when I would get there, but I couldn't
think coherently. I felt a terrible tumult in my head. Yes, I shall
plead for his life. I shall offer mine instead of his, or we will go
together, and make an end to this suffering. Hours went by, our
hands and knees were sore from the gravel, but we were getting
closer, only a few more steps. When we stood up there were no German
guards. The doors were open, the place deserted. In the right hand
corner lay a pile of uniforms worn by the Jewish police, mixed with
a few dresses, pants, shoes, scraps of clothing. I looked at Guta,
but there was nothing we could say to each other, nothing we could
do. She was pleading in a soft voice, "Let's go back, maybe they
took him to work." Guta followed behind like a shadow. I didn't cry.
"I am dead," I said, "I shall exist because this is my destiny. I am
dead, I have no fears, no tears. I am a ghost of once a life. I
shall not fear death." I head Guta sobbing. I kept silent. No, I
couldn't bring the pain to her for she has a right to live. I took
her hand, and we walked slowly back to the dormitory. There were
only a couple of hours to dawn.
"Let's lie down, Guta, I shall try again tomorrow. Maybe he is still
The night wasn't silent, cries were heard from every cot and corner,
but my eyes were dry. I sadly recalled a scene in a kitchen in the
Warsaw Ghetto, when Mother put her hand on father's shoulder. In a
suffering voice she asked, "Henoh, what gives you so much faith and
strength to pray? Don't you see the dead?" He looked up from his
holy books. How clearly I remember his answer. "They are dying for
Kiddush Ha Shem." (Dying in the name of the Lord.) I wish I had his
faith, But I did not and could not pray. We did not want to die for
I did not care how long the night lasted, but like anything else in
life it came to an end. The first glimpse of daybreak finally came
through the windows. We went back to the factory, but I didn't take
my usual seat beside the machine. Instead I approached the German
woman, but I didn't fear her. I no longer feared the Germans nor
death. She looked at me in surprise, for no Jew had ever approached
her. I started talked in perfect German.
"You are a woman, you do have a heart under your black dress. You
lost your man, please help me get back mine." I waited for her hand
to strike me, but it didn't. I wonder what brought tears to her
eyes, was it my childish face full of suffering, or the memory of
her own loss? "Wait here," she said and walked out. I sat near a
table, my head resting on my arms, but I couldn't cry. I felt a
terrible heaviness in my heart. I don't know how much time went by
until I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up into the eyes of the
German overseer. I hoped for good news. I heard a softness never
heard before in her voice. "I wanted to help," she said. "It's too
late, he is dead." I remained motionless. Her words stuck a mortal
pain in my heart. Time no longer mattered, no one to go to, no one
The Poles know what had happened this tragic night. They told the
story at lunch time. Every word I heard was agony. From them I
learned of the inhuman scene. In the dimness of the moon, stood a
group of a hundred young men and a few women. In front of them was
the deeper darkness of the partly dug graves, growing deeper and
deeper by their own hands. There was no place to turn. At their
backs were machine guns and the Gestapo, on their bodies not a
stitch of clothes. Not everyone was lucky to get a bullet to end his
life, but it didn't matter to the Germans whether they buried them
half alive. The Poles coming to work could hear the cries from under
the ground. How terrible was my tragedy? First Dad, Karola, Aron,
Mom and now Izio, my first love, the man to whom I belonged. The man
I could never forget. The sense of imprisonment wasn't unbearable
any more. My mind stopped completed to dwell on the past and now the
hope of the future hung in suspense, but always through the
sleepless nights, I could hear Izio utter words of love, and feel
his arms around me.
My heart was weeping blood, but my eyes were dry of tears. I didn't
have the strength to return to this valueless life, and I felt sure
I would die soon. There was no one to bury the loneliness. Days went
by, every step in back of me made feel still and breathless - that's
him. A song brought tears and memories back, a hand on my shoulder,
a shiver. I looked at faces to see a resemblance, listened to voices
hoping to hear familiar words. I was like a shell, empty, without a
care. There were no longer weeks to be counted, nor days, nor
nights; just a shadow, a face, words of love still remembered, and
dreams about the dear past. Home and family, how far away, how long
ago. Now only unbearable pain, with no cure, no healing. How could I
live if only death is my rescue? I felt life draining out of my
slowly. I was desperate, but there were thousands of others building
up their hopes because life in camp was being organized.
We were split into two groups, taking turns one week night shift and
the other week day. This gave the doctors and nurses a chance to
hide the sick from the German patrols. The cots in the back of the
dormitories were always occupied by patients.
It was a week now after Izio's death. He would have celebrated his
twenty-second birthday if he were alive. Not far away from where I
operated a machine, worked a girl who was brought back by a German a
few minutes before the others were shot. I often noticed her eyes
looking in my direction, but I wasn't anxious to talk to her; I
knew enough. One day while walking back after work to the dormitory
she approached me. We stood near the entrance. With a faint voice
she began, "I stood next to Izio, when we were ordered to dig the
graves." I wanted to ask her questions, but I couldn't make a sound.
I stared at her lips. I wanted to hear more, relieved by her words
striking at the pain in my heart. Hearing her repeat Izio's last
words brought him so much to life. Each word became engraved in my
"I loved Jadzia very much, and I hope with my life I can save hers.
No man could help loving her. I hope the dreams we could not fulfill
will come true for her." For the first time since his death, the
tears were streaming down my cheeks, bringing relief.
"What else did Izio say?"
"You see, Jadzia, at this time the German called my name, because I
was trained to work on this particular machine, and this is what
saved my life. I put the shovel down near Izio's feet. I looked up
at his face. 'Tell her I love her,' he said. 'For the sake of my
love, tell her to go on living.'"
I walked away from her, and through the long night my tears were
mixed with the dust of the dirty straw, and I knew the deep wound in
my heart would never close again. When the morning siren brought us
back to work, I was bothered by a persistent dizziness, caused by
hunger, a sleepless night.
I could hear Izio's last words over and over again. "Tell her I love
her, to go on living, tell her I love her," and the words were mixed
with the noise of machines and the squeaking of iron. I could hear
them louder and louder despite the "schneller and schneller" loud
voice of the German. "I love you, Jadzia." I kept working like an
automate, obeying German orders. His sacred words gave me strength
to go on.
In the long hours there was so much time to think and the horrors
kept coming back. What have I seen? Bloody executions, ghettos. I
have listened to terrifying stories of crematoriums. Days were
lengthened into years. No longer a child, so completely dependent on
parents, so alone, a widow child struggling for life. I felt the
weight of the horrible human calamity on my young shoulders. At this
tender age, I have seen violence, suffering, and hunger. I have seen
half rotten bodies left in the streets to feed the rats, and now
Izio's death, left upon my life a scar so deep and painful. How many
years went by? No calendars to make the time. Neither the powerful
noises of machines, nor cruel German voices could kill the memories
of the past the good Jewish spirit - but we were still grateful for
little things. We were still able to go to sleep and get up to work
again. This night it was an effort to go back to the factory, since
it was a month after the abortion. Biting my lips from pain, I
hardly made it to the factory. The hours of work seemed endless,
anxiously I awaited the siren so that I could go to the infirmary.
While everyone else was eating the slice of bread, I walked out in
the dark of the night. The infirmary was located in a small side
building, The room was almost bare. Beside one wall was a leather
cot with a pillow and a little white cabinet with medications. I
felt so dizzy that the room was for a moment a blur. I felt
someone's hand supporting me. I opened my eyes. A young doctor in a
white uniform started at me with a startled look, as if he had just
seen a ghost.
"What is your name?" He asked.
"What's the trouble? You know how dangerous it is to be here?"
"I am in terrible pain, caused by abortion." I felt so dizzy I
His firm hand caught me in time.
"Is it so bad?"
"Yes, I am losing a lot of blood." I could see the pity in his eyes.
"Please let me stay, I am no afraid. My husband is dead, nothing
else matters." He tried to reason with me.
"The German patrol has been here a few times at night, you can't
take a chance." I started to cry.
"I am Dr. Winter," I heard him say again, "Lie down I will give you
some tablets to ease the pain. In case of German company you can
leave through the back door. I will watch."
Relieved I lay down on the cot. I closed my eyes, but could not stop
the tears. After a while the tablets eased the pain. I opened my
eyes and saw Dr. Winter sitting right next to me. His big black eyes
were sad and full of concern. He asked how I felt. "You are so
young. You are still a child."
"No, I'm not young. I am over fifteen. I am not a child. Jewish
children do not exist any more."
"Do you want to talk about it?" He asked. I turned away to the wall;
the tears were choking me.
"No, there is nothing to talk about. I just want to be left alone."
I was sorry I didn't mean to be so rude. We both were silent. The
night went by peaceful. I didn't turn back, but I knew Dr. Winter
was there and I was grateful for it. Dawn was breaking. We heard the
first Jewish workers returning to the dormitories.
"It's time to go back," said Dr. Winter. I stood up and stretched out
my hand. I felt his warm hand clasped over mine.
"Thank you, doctor." I walked slowly to the door.
"Mrs. Abramson," I heard him call my name. I looked back, his voice
was so kind. "Any time, if I can help, I'll be glad to."
"Thanks again, doctor." Followed by his eyes I left. From this day
on I often needed and got Dr. Winter's kind help.
It was just a week after we met. I was the first typhoid case in the
concentration camp of Hasak. I was not covered with a rash as in the
Warsaw Ghetto when I came down with typhus, but the high temperature
was burning my body, and even a small drop of water would bring
diarrhea. My cot was pushed down to the far end of the dormitory to
separate me from the others. Guta was forced to go to work with the
others, and I was left under the care of Dr. Winter. For a few days
I was almost unconscious from pain and weakness. I was grateful for
his gentle hand on my forehead or when he took my pulse. I would
swallow the bitter tablets he placed in my mouth, for he fought for
my life when I cared so little. In those long, agonizing hours, I
would see Izio's face and utter his name. I hoped for death, but
instead my strength started coming back. My temperature returned to
normal. The little food that Dr. Winter managed to get for me helped
me to recuperate. He spoke so little but his care was tender. Dr.
Winter brought me a winter coat when I was able to go back to work
with the others. I realized then the feelings Dr. Winter had for me.
Many times I was called Mrs. Winter and many times heard the same
words. "You look just like Dr. Winter's wife." I realized now I was
to him a dear memory, a resemblance to a beloved face.
In this hell of a prison his kindness meant so much. In this
accursed camp, still existed friendship and love between the Jews.
There were many cases of typhoid now. My sister Guta came down with
it. There was so little medication and even with the great efforts
of Jewish doctors to help, the number of deaths was great. Many were
dying and new Jews were brought in. New faces, new people brought by
trains for a few hours. Some were left to stay with us and others
went to unknown destinies. We walked between them, and we looked for
a relative, a neighbor. A brother would fall in the arms of a found
sister believed dead, and then the terrible separation began again.
I saw Esther once in one of the groups. She was the leader from the
girl's club from Kalisz. Her face, which I recalled as always so
happy, was no sad, almost drained of life. Her big blue eyes
reflected the pain inside. It was a happy reunion, but so short,
only an hour. A slammed door on the train and I watched her
disappear between the others.
The trains were coming more often, but the people were not let out.
We would run alongside the trains, looking for familiar faces, but
not too many could be seen through the small barred windows. We
would call out names of cities. One would try to outscream the other
- Kalisz, Krakow, Lvov each one of us hoping for some response.
After a short time our voices would mix with the rattle on the
trains. A cry, waving of hands.
After a few days, no more trains were seen with Jews. The trains on
the factory premises were now used for ammunitions.
We were give the barracks for our new homes. With our little bundles
we still owned, we tramped over each other to grab a bunk and a spot
we thought was the best. It was the first Sunday, the day of rest,
when I had a chance to see our new surroundings. The barracks were
made from rough wood. They all looked the same, except three of
them. One was used as a hospital. It was surrounded by a wire fence.
One was an infirmary, and one had washing facilities and toilets.
The bunks were three-tiered. Each tier held twelve people. A double
three-tiered bunk supplied sleeping space for seventy-two people.
Each barrack had ten bunks. I really don't know how many barrack we
had, but seven hundred and twenty people made it very crowded. We
were surrounded by a ten-foot high fence which we were told was
wired. It was guarded by a German soldier.
On one side we could see the factory buildings, on the other the
fields and mills. It was a bright Sunday morning. I stood a few feet
away from the fence, looking far to the horizon. They sky was so
blue where the heavens and earth met, it made the grass look more
blue than green. No building was seen, just miles of grass and
hills, and beyond those hills life and freedom, hopes and families.
By mirage I would not see the wires, for a moment carried away.
Then, with a sudden pang in my heart, I would see it in front of me
looking higher and higher, sharper and sharper, and I could not
dwell about life because death was so near. I looked around at the
thousands of Jews walking hand in hand between the barracks, lost in
conversation. With thousands of them around me I felt alone. I
slipped back to the barrack and I felt as though I were closed in a
cage. I lay on the smelly straw listening to the stillness - not a
cry of a child or a bird's song, not even a rat running through. If
they tried to exist here, they would be starved out. No escape, no
valley to the civilized world. How true were the words of a
Lithuanian poet, that came to my mind:
Litvo my country
You are like health
How to praise you
The one shall only know who lost you.
A poem was written by an exile, I praised the past, feeling myself
an exile from life.
We lived a life that was hard to get used to. We never spoke about
ghettos or relatives. With the weakness of our bodies, we were
afraid we would go insane. We kept on living from hour to hour, day
to day. We spoke about the past. Some still had hopes for a future.
We became philosophers of life. We appreciated little things. We saw
beauty in nature - an extreme of great wonder. The sun on cold days
was welcomed with thanks, the warm radiance more dear than a hot
stove at home in winter. We weren't lucky to see sunshine at five
o'clock in the morning, when we were ordered outside, to assembly
and be counted. The summers weren't so bad, but the mornings of
winter were treacherous. Our faces exposed to the cold, looked grey,
and drained of blood and life. The temperature at five in the
morning would be twenty or thirty below zero. Our half-torn clothes
were not sufficient to protect us from the bitter cold and it took
two hours every morning to be counted. We kept stomping our feet so
that our wooden shoes wouldn't freeze to the icy ground - but we
were alive. Looking at the trains beside the fence, rushing away
with ammunition, listening to the sharp rattle that kept reminding
us that we were the lucky ones. The work from day to day was getting
harder, or maybe we were weaker, but we still preferred to stay at
the factory rather than in the barracks. The snow swirling wildly
against the wooden barracks gave us little warmth. The
frost-flowered windows made us shiver, not sleep. The factory was
warm, but the powerful lights made the Jewish workers look all the
more pitiful. Each face told a story of a bitter tragedy in this
hellish camp. Nothing brought happiness. The nearness of Spring made
lire more sad. The warm sun gradually melted the snow. Every blade
of grass outside of the camp was coming to life, and we felt half
decayed, and close to death. The spring sky became brighter, but not
The years were rolling by from springs to summers, from summers to
winters. The cold was unbearable, the heat was suffocating, and the
hunger within me never ceased. It was not only the hunger of the
body, but the hunger for love and knowledge, normal life and
freedom. The fear of the people was worse than the physical
hardships, and the little food scarcely sufficient to keep us alive.
Yes, life had wronged me. I spoke to no one about Izio. I kept
remembering a glance, words, moments vividly renewed. My whole life
so terribly entangled in the web of hatred. With the faith of my
childhood, I began to pray again. Many others kept living in the
Jewish faith of centuries old. There were no prayer shawls or prayer
books, but evening after evening groups of men would gather in the
barracks for the mincha and maarev prayer. We could see them close
to the barrack windows watching for the Germans.
Prayers didn't help, they didn't change our lives. Things were
changing from bad to worse. Even the few hours of rest were
torturous. We shared our cots with bed bugs. In thousands they kept
crawling over the wood and straw. We covered our faces with scraps
of cloth for protection. They kept sucking at our necks and every
spot of the body they could get to. We kept shoveling them off,
throwing them to the ground, but they kept coming back in enormous
numbers. This wasn't the only discomfort. Every day had something
new in store for us. One morning we found one of the inmates shot at
the door of the toilet. After this incident we would not leave the
barracks at night. We used to urinate in cans that we found in the
rubbish. After a few weeks the smell in the barracks was unbearable,
especially in the summer, mixed with heat and perspiring bodies.
Many nights we would pace in the barracks and then weary, went to
work. Many of us were ill, but kept silent because of fear. Some
couldn't get up. The hospital was always filled; and the lack of
food didn't help the inmates to recuperate. We kept hoping they
would give us more food since they needed us to work, but this was
only a dream like many others. We did get three packs of cigarettes
a week. The tobacco was black, the taste bitter. Some men would give
half of their bread for a pack of cigarettes. I kept smoking mine,
for the bitter taste helped to kill the hunger. The dust from the
ammunition mixed with the bitter cigarette smoke settled in my
chest. I developed a persistent cough. After weeks of coughing the
pain never left my chest and my body was burning with high
temperature. I was making regular visits to the infirmary, where Dr.
Winter kept injecting calcium into my veins. Blood was taken from my
veins and injected into my sides. My arms were swollen from the
needles, but the cough and fever hung on. Many mornings, when I
didn't have strength to get up, Guta would find someone from the
night shift to stand in the line instead of me to be counted. Even a
mild wind would give me the chills, and the work was a terrible
effort. I was confined to the hospital I dreaded so much. I fought
back my tears when I said good-bye to Guta at the hospital gate. It
was like walking into a chilled tomb. The hospital consisted of two
big rooms. The beds were so close together that I could feel the
breathing of the patient next to me, but the bed was clean and
comfortable. This was the only luxury I knew in many years, a real
bed. Mine was in a far corner. Through the window across the room, I
could see people coming and going from work. This helped pass the
time, because most of the patients were too sick to talk to me. The
few doctors and nurses were to busy. I lay for hours starting at the
window, holding the pillow tight over my ears in order not to hear
the shrieks and moans of the sick. Visitors were not allowed. How
anxiously I waited for the hour when Guta would stand near the gate
until dark. We could not talk to each other, still the feeling of
not being alone was great, someone to wait and to care. The number
of dead in the hospital was enormous. I would shut my eyes tightly
every time the stretchers were brought in, in order not to see the
How lucky I felt after ten days to be released, walking out from
there alive. The rest gave me extra strength, but my temperature was
over 100 and the cough. was something with which I had to learn to
live. The calcium shots that Dr. Winter kept giving me were saving
my life. With great gratitude, I looked at the man who helped me in
those torturous years, yet somehow never could I find the words to
show my appreciation. The things I would love to tell him remained
unsaid, but I included him in my silent prayers, hoping the Lord
would save him and let him continue to help others. Praying brought
A Friend and A Child
I WAS grateful for having my sister, and still felt a terrible
loneliness. To kill the loneliness I started to join groups of other
prisoners outside the barracks on Sundays. A boy from Czestochowa
became a dear friend of mine. I felt safe in his company, safe from
propositions and talk of love, because of his shyness. I spoke to
him of Izio. He was a silent listener. After a few weeks I asked him
to make a little charm for me, and to engrave two dates on it. One
side was the date of my wedding and on the other side, the date of
Izio's death. His work was making machine parts from stainless steel
and that is why he could make this charm for me. On one of our walks
he placed the charm in my hand. I strung a black shoelace through
the charm and hung it on my neck. Like a touch of death I felt the
cold steel on my chest, this charm bearing two unforgettable dates.
No, time did not heal the pain after Izio's death. Now, years having
gone by, the hope of survival was stronger. I kept thinking about
him, and dreaded the future I was to face alone, the future all the
others so hopefully awaited. I confided my thoughts to my new
companion. With his intelligence I knew how well he understood my
feelings and fears. I awaited anxiously for Sundays, the days we
spent together. I knew I meant more to him than just a friend. I
felt sorry for him, and in the slightest change of conversation I
would find an excuse to go back to the barracks. My heart was still
so full with love for the man I so tragically lost. I did not want
to forget. Like an echo I could still hear his first words.
"Finally, I found you." And the last ones of love and his wish for
me to live.
One of those days when I was deeply engrossed in thought, a
wonderful thing happened. We shared with joy the rumor of a child
being hidden in the barracks. This particular hot evening when most
of the people were out, I saw a little boy standing in front of me.
I did not dare move, fearing it was an illusion. His hair was blond,
his eyes big with an adult look. His complexion was so white, a
face never exposed to the sun or outside air. I opened my mouth, I
wanted to say something, but I was speechless. I stared at the child
as if I had never seen one before. His voice broke the silence.
"Please tell me a story." His voice was like a song. How long had it
been since I heard a child speak? I pulled him close to me and
covered his face with kisses. "Yes, darling, I shall tell you a
story." I placed him on my lap. I was overjoyed at holding a Jewish
child close to me.
"How old are you?" His blue eyes stared at me. "Three, four, I don't
really know," was the child's answer. He looked around straining
his ears for the sound of German boots. I put my arms around him to
make him feel secure.
"Let's see, what story should I tell you?" He put his head on my
"Any story," he said in a whisper. I whispered too.
"Once upon a time there were many little Jewish boys and girls, just
as little as you."
"Where are they?"
"I don't know, some day we will find out. I was once a little girl,
with toys to play with, candies to eat."
"What are candies?" The tears were streaming down my cheeks. How do
you explain candies to a little boy, the taste of which I myself
have forgotten? "Candies are sweet, darling. Someday you shall have
many of them."
"Will I play someday?"
"Oh yes, precious, you will." How eager he was to talk and to learn.
"You mean the Germans won't look for me?"
"No, baby, they will be all gone."
"Will they be dead like my
I was so engrossed with the child and the story that I did not
notice his mother standing in front of us. She grabbed the child
from me. Pressed him close to her breast. For a moment I couldn't
speak. Yes, we all looked starved, but the woman in front of me was
a living skeleton. One could tell she never ate, for the little food
she got she gave to the child. I stood up and put my hand on her
shoulder. "Please let me play with him."
"No, you can't, she stepped back, "he is not allowed to leave the
"I'll come to him, please? I swear to God I shall not tell a soul,"
With a faint smile she agreed. From that day on the child filled
many monotonous hours with joy.
In this accused camp, not even a bird would descend to the ground,
because there were no crumbs to be picked up. They would not stand
on the barrack roofs, because of the roughness of the wood, but we
had a child. A child who looked so bewildered, how could he survive?
After all those years, when life and death were drawn so close, how
did he manage to live? We all had a childhood to remember, but this
little boy would never know what it meant to be a child. His bunk
was on the third tier. All the hours that his mother had to leave
for work, he lay flat under the straw sack waiting for her return.
The only hours when he could sit up and talk were the hours in the
stillness of the night. The child brought a change in my life. My
heart so clenched with bitterness seemed easier now. Before retiring
I would whisper, "Shma Israel," the prayer I grew up with. I prayed
to God to take us from this tyranny to freedom for the sake of this
child and others still alive. During the restless nights, when my
eyes could not close to sleep I would climb up to the little boy's
bunk. I told him stories about things which I myself dreamed, the
days of my childhood. I would watch the fear disappear from his eyes
while listening to dreams so cruelly denied to him. We all still had
dreams. Small groups of inmates sat around the barracks, talking
about literature and music. Some would rehearse ballet steps. A few
would recite poems. Half decayed we clung to things from normal
life. We kept as clean as circumstances would permit. The barracks
were spotless, and the few rags we owned were washed every Sunday.
We waited patiently in the lines for the daily plate of soup and
slice of bread without a complaint. We took care of each other
devotedly. Everyone of us had a friend, a substitute for a family.
We were all people with yesterday's grief and tomorrow's fear. From
this odious hate of the Germans we learned a lesson. We learned the
importance of love, and the urgent fight against prejudice and
hatred. We hoped, if given another chance, to seek a country with
equal civil rights for every citizen. Many of us died, but the ones
remaining kept hoping. We knew so little of what was happening
outside the camp. We prayed for German defeat, while listening to
them bragging of their victories.
The End of the War
SEPARATED by the high wires until the last minute, we didn't know
our rescuers were around the corner. We were so very amazed at the
changes in camp and the tension of the German behavior. Our work was
doubled. SS were brought into camp and we were ordered to work on
Sundays. The counting in the morning would begin at four instead of
at five o'clock. Jewish police were brought in from Krakow. They
were dressed like the Gestapo, only the band on their arms bore a
Jewish Star instead of a swastika. We were ordered to rise when
they passed by us. They beat the women violently if a bunk in the
barracks was left in disorder. We were told that in a period of two
weeks our camp would be turned from a work camp into a fornichtung
camp. The trains beside the fence started passing by with Jewish
people again. The scenes were horrifying. They were not Jews we saw
years ago, healthy and well dressed pleading for water. Now their
faces were not recognizable. Their voices were so weak, some of them
just managing to move their lips. Night and day this procession of
trains passed in front of our eyes, as reminders of what once were
We could not understand the sudden change and the trains rushing
again. We looked at each other with searching eyes. We felt like a
heavy cloud hung over us and at any moment it would come down and
swallow us. Then it happened, empty trains stood beside the gates.
Groups of men and women from our camp were led to them to fill them
up. We stood broken with grief. Faces we were accustomed to for
years, kept disappearing behind the barred train windows. It felt
again like families torn to shreds, with bundles on their backs, a
blanket, a can, silently obedient under German guns. Again like
cattle led to where? Guta and I were still working, but many parts
of the factory were closed. Some barracks were completely empty, the
hospital doors were wide open with not a soul in it. Once again
there were painful good-byes. In one of the groups I said good-bye
to my dear friend from Czestochowa, his first and last kiss on my
lips. "Good-bye, Jadzia, I hope to see you again."
With heavy steps I went back to the barracks and knew this was the
end. All night we lay awake too frightened to close our eyes. Our
bundles were beside us, more than we owned the day before. We got
some of the things left behind by others. We didn't talk, not even
in a whisper. The beat of our hearts was loud, and frightened; we
awaited our destiny. The morning was silent. The factory siren we
heard for so many years was dead. Not a German screamed, there was
One by one we left the barracks, and stood still beside the fence.
We did not see the trains we feared so much, only piles of German
uniforms and boots. From the pile of the black clothing, the white
swastikas stood out like streaks of snow on a black mountain. There
were not many left to see it, perhaps a hundred.
The barrack gates were wide open, but we were afraid to go through
them. One by one, we sat down on our bundles, limp, half famished,
without strength or care. The day went slowly. The stillness around
us was broken by passing planes and the sound of machine guns. We
huddled together too frightened to move. Small groups of men would
disappear, but the women sat there, waiting, not knowing for what.
The day was coming to an end. From the distance we saw flames, they
looked like lava in the darkness, and seemed to come closer and
closer. "We have to go," said one of the girls, "if not, we will get
burned alive." "Please let's stay," pleaded another. "Better to get
burned than caught again by the Germans. They must be hiding
everywhere." "It doesn't make sense," we heard a voice behind us.
"They didn't show up for the day. They must be fighting in the city,
let's go in the other direction.:" We argued for an hour. Finally
we decided to leave. Guta and I picked up our bundles and left with
the others. When we passed through the gate every step seemed so
heavy and insecure, like passing over a ditch. We stopped,
surrounded by the darkness of the night. Which way should we go? We
chose to go to the left, toward the forest, not to the city. In
front of us we saw miles of woods, so inviting to give us shelter.
Where would this patch lead after the night ended?
We walked slowly holding on to each other. Before us was a wide
road, but not a house nor a sight of people who once lived here.
With heavy hearts, we kept walking, not a word passing between us,
for we were afraid to be heard. The clapping of our wooden sandals
was the only noise in the night. I kept thinking about Izio. The
words he once asked. "What would you do if you were free?" "Oh Izio!
I dreamt of running, now I have no strength, and your strong arms
cannot support me, they are closed in death." I have to stop
thinking, I cannot give in to my emotions - afraid to lose my
senses. Not now! Maybe this is the way to freedom. You want me to go
on living. Here I am, Izio, alive, and soon, real soon will I know
that I'm free! It was painful to think about freedom, without Izio,
but Guta's hand closed in mine and made this agony easier. No, I was
not alone, not many were lucky to have a sister, but maybe soon we
would find someone alive.
The trees were thinning out, we walked through empty fields exposed
to the sky. So dark and cold, still on the way to where? Our feet
were slowing down. We walked for hours. The sky was as dark as our
thoughts, not a star sparkling, not a spark of hope. Our ears
strained for sounds of feet. Our tortured hearts beat fearfully.
Our eyes searched for a way to where? After so many hours of
running, there was not a sign of a German. A wave of emotion spread
through us. Maybe we are free! The wooden straps of our sandals kept
cutting deeper and deeper into our flesh. Drop after drop the blood
was soaking into the ground, making the way to freedom.
Suddenly we saw a group approaching us. We could not run back and
the open fields gave no shelter. We stood motionless, terrified, and
some just dropped to the ground. The steps were coming closer and
closer. "Hey you," someone asked in Polish, "Who are you?" To hear
our native tongue brought great relief, but we were still too
frightened to answer. We stared in front of us, looking at a group
of men coming closer and closer, Their clothes were shabby, just as
bad as ours. One of them spoke. "We are Poles, we broke out of
prison, we are going to Czestochowa, the Russians are there." "No",
we screamed. "We are coming from there, we walked all night." "You
have to go back, the city you are headed for is still occupied by
the Germans." They left us to make our own decision and walked away.
Some of our group started sobbing, and decided to stay where they
were. We threw the rest of our belongings away, since we had no
strength to carry them. I looked at the group with me. It was about
half the size I started with. Some had dropped dead, a few just lay
too exhausted to move. A few others went back to camp. We looked at
each other as though we were seeing ourselves for the first time.
"Let's go," said one. We looked back at the road from which we had
just come, not sure that we could make it again.
I heard a gasp, a sob, I looked down at Guta. She sat numb, crying
on the ground. "Lets go," I pleaded with her. She looked at me with
the eyes of a lost child. "Where to? I'm not going. What difference
does it make where I die?" With the little strength left in me, I
pulled her up. "You're not giving up, now I supported her body and
dragged her along with me. Everything around us seemed suspended.
The far away noise of bullets would break through the silence. Every
crevice in a tree seemed to hide a German's gun. After hours and
hours, the grey sky was getting lighter with the beginning of a new
day. We were coming closer and closer to the city where we had been
imprisoned for four long years.
The city was filled with songs and screams of thousands of people
celebrating the end of the war. I tried to remain sane in the
epidemic of madness. I couldn't share their joy. I started looking
at the store windows with their display of clothing and lingerie.
The rags on me were so shabby, I wanted to run, to hide from the
eyes, but where should I go. One a nearby corner, a group of other
survivors joined us. We were told that just a block away was a big
building deserted by the Germans, occupied by other survivors, a
home to give us shelter. Our feet were slowing down, we wanted to
run but a block seemed miles away. I looked at the row of buildings
giving home to other families. I was homeless - the air of freedom
cut into my lungs with pain. How much I yearned for my home - for
the familiar rooms, a warm kitchen, stove and a real meal. How long
ago, how far away and how remote the possibility of seeing it again.
I wished Izio could be near to rejoice in this homecoming, and I
could almost see Mommy and the rest of the family waiting on the
threshold of my home. I did not want to think differently. They have
to be there. We came to a big grey building and with the impulse of
happiness, I dashed up the stairs looking for a room, toying with
the idea of going home again. The thought brought a spark to my
lonely life - the thought of seeing my people. Most of the rooms in
the building were occupied, but we found a two-room apartment on the
fourth floor. The kitchen was empty with only a little stove in it.
The other room had three big beds with bedding. These were the only
things in the apartment since the Poles had not had time to take
There were four of us occupying the room - my sister, two other
girls and myself. I took off my sandals and crawled into bed. Guta
lay close to me. We cuddled together to keep warm. It was a restless
sleep, interrupted by dreams and the pain in the pit of my stomach
from thirty-eight hours without food. This was how the night passed.
The running of feet outside awakened me. I looked around the bare
room, not knowing for a minute where I was. All of a sudden, I heard
very loud crying on the stairs. I grabbed Guta's hand. "Please get
up, something terrible happened." We ran out of the room. The
stairway was filled with every survivor who occupied the building.
After a while, we found out about the terrible tragedy on the second
day of our freedom. One of the boys went down to the basement for
some potatoes and a mine placed there by a German tore him to
pieces. Another man was shot to death by a bullet from a window. A
German soldier, before he shot himself, fired a bullet through the
window, killing a Jew from our camp, who was one of many passersby.
I choked with hatred for the Germans, for destroying lives and even
on this day of liberation, still continuing their murderous deeds.
This was freedom?
The Russian Soldiers
We were free and insecure; we were free and hungry, but life must go
on, no matter how much worse it was, or how dim were the prospects;
life must go on, no matter how tough was the struggle for existence.
With all the terrible things that had happened, we had to worry how
to get a bite of food and to go on surviving. I walked out into the
night, the stars were glittering over the city, fully and steadily.
Right above me I could see the Big Dipper. I wondered where Henio
was now. I did not need any stars to remind me of Izio. I wondered
where Dr. Winter was. I kept looking at the stars - they seemed
almost unreal. Under the bright sharpness of the stars, I stood
alone, trying to brush away the past and wondering what the future
would bring. The tears were streaming down my face; I kept wiping
them off with the back of my hand. Freedom - the dream was
fulfilled. The air, after the smelly odor of camp, was filled with
the fragrance of flowers. I kept breathing it in, deeper and deeper,
and I opened my heart and eyes to the few crumbs life offered.
Around me, people were screaming and singing. Polish women were
embraced by Russian soldiers, the same women who two days ago slept
with the Germans. Now again they were contributing their bodies to
the new heroes. The drunks sang loudly, filling their stomachs with
vodka. Drunkenness in Poland was always a way to celebrate a
holiday. Now they were sharing the strong liquor with the Russian
soldiers. With bleary faces and blood-shot eyes, some of them lay
exhausted in the gutters in a peaceful sleep.
At a nearby corner, a drunken voice roared the Polish National
Anthem. A group of Russian soldiers were coming close to me. "Hey,
Dziewushka," the voice brought me back to reality. Terrified, I ran
into the building, dashed up the steps to my room and wondered if
people are really free and in what part of the world. I lay hungry
and restless, recalling every single thought of the war years, every
single promise and dream, I hung onto memories of my marriage and
wondered when the hunger and fear would end.
Many of the survivors were going back to their home towns. This made
staying in the building less safe. Even a locked door wasn't enough
to protect us from the Russian soldiers. This quiet evening four of
us sat around the table making plans for the future. Suddenly loud
Russian boots were heard all over the building, like once the boots
of the Gestapo, now not spreading fear of death, but to some of us
death would not be bad. We looked at each other with questioning
eyes - where to go? But there was no place of safety; not even age
mattered. Women of 16 or 60, it was all the same to a Russian drunk.
A woman was a woman. The sound of the boots was coming closer. The
door of our room flung open. The room was filled with soldiers. Some
had bottles of vodka, other, yards of silk and colorful babuskas.
Many stripes on their sleeves showed they had high positions in the
Russian army. One of them pushed our little table to the door. He
sat on a chair placing his legs high on a table with two bottles of
vodka in front of him, and we knew any escape would be impossible.
As hard as we fought, the soldiers pulled the girls to the beds; two
strong hands grabbed my shoulders with all my strength I tried to
push him away. His red face and bloodshot eyes got closer and closer
to my face. I tried to push my head to one side. The smell of vodka
on his breath was nauseating. I felt his hot lips behind my ears and
his hands ripping my clothes to shreds. The screams of the girls and
the strong grip of the soldier's arm around my waist - everything
happened so fast. I was terrified. I knew that if I could make one
more step I would be near the window. With all my might I bent my
body. I felt cold glass behind me. His naked belly against my body
was pressing closer and his lips were searching for mine. I let my
lips come close to his to distract him and with my elbow I broke the
window. The crashing glass made him stop the struggle for my body. I
fell to my knees and with the strength of a crazed animal I
screamed, "Help, help!" The fallen glass brought the attention of a
few people. The soldiers, realizing what happened, holding on to
their trousers ran out of the room, leaving behind the bottles and
goods, with which they would pay for a night of fun.
Exhausted we straightened up the room. The cut in my elbow was
painful, as were the bruised bodies of my friends. We were lucky
they did not get us - not this time. Not a word passed between us.
What was there to say? We pushed our beds against the door and went
to sleep. From that night on, we escaped from terror only to face
another, and the terrifying dreams about the Germans were added to
the fear of the Russians.
Once again, frightened and insecure, we asked the same question over
and over again, "Where shall we go?"
But fear had no end. The Russian orgies made us stay in. The ones
who were not killed by the Germans were now raped by the Russians.
We would not dare go out in the day time. In the darkness of the
night, we took turns stealing potatoes in the others' backyards. We
were free - and we were prisoners. I wanted to run into the night
air and gulp it. I wanted to feel my sore feet on the cement
streets; feel the wind pushing against my body, roaming through the
streets without wires or fences. A gush of feelings overflowed my
heart thinking some joys might come in this unexpected destiny of
life, but we could not build too many hopes and dreams while hearing
the Russians' drunken voices outside the doors.
We had to do something to change this life. We registered in the
Office for Survivors and received a loaf of bread a week. We sold
the bedding to get some decent clothes. How greatly relieved I felt
when I threw in the rubbish can the few scraps of clothing I had
worn for five long years and the coat painted with a big red cross
on the back. I looked in the mirror for the first time after the
war. I was so surprised to see myself so grown up - only my legs
were out of proportion - swollen from malnutrition but it did not
matter. I could hear a voice in my saying "I'm alive and free." Now,
dressing like other people, we could make plans for our future. Guta
and one of our roommates left for Lodz, the big industrial city,
hoping maybe we could get work there, and be safer from the Russian
soldiers, and I was supposed to follow. Guta's departure left a void
almost unbearable. I was hoping we would always be together, but
this newly attained freedom brought more loneliness and doubts and
always the same question - to where would all this lead?
As the days slipped by, I anxiously awaited news from Lodz and I
made plans to see my home town once more. I hoped to have money soon
for the train fare. The very active life in the building did not
interest me. Couples were getting married. Some of the girls were
making plans to go to Russia with soldiers. I feared the Russians. I
disliked their behavior and ignorance. Like wild animals, they were
running through the streets. Even in Poland, not the richest land in
Europe, everything they bought or stole, they did not know how to
use. They drank cologne, instead of vodka machines to grind coffee
were brought back to the stores because they could not hear any
music. Even a flushing toilet was a great innovation. After all
those years of prison, I could not learn to love my liberators, and
I hoped to get away from them as soon as I could. And those little
plans for the future kept me so busy. Every day I checked the list
of survivors at the registration office, but very few of them were
back. My joy of freedom began to evaporate little by little. Getting
food was more difficult from day to day. When our rooms were bare
and had nothing in them for sale, we would search in the rooms of
the big ghetto. Not much was to be found there, but every little
thing helped to buy a little bread. One day, while in the ghetto, in
desperate search for something to sell, I decided to see the
apartment Izio and his family had lived in. With a palpitation in my
heart, I walked up the steps. I stood near the closed door for a few
minutes, not being able to walk in. I shut my eyes tight and tried
to picture once more every corner he spoke about. I could hear the
voices of the other girls coming closer. Not wanting anybody to
share this moment with me, I pushed the door open. The chills went
through my body. The rooms were cold and empty. I could feel a
dampness in the air. The cobwebs were hanging down from the ceilings
and walls in this place so long ago deserted. A little wooden table
in the kitchen corner was the only furniture left. I ran out like a
mad woman, and ran for blocks and blocks. I tried to forget this
apartment and all the ghetto homes like chilled tombs, so cold and
neglected. All these rooms were once called homes, filled with
prayers and songs, voices of love and affection. People were staring
at me. I started walking slowly. I felt old, so very old, without
any strength to go on living. The burden on my shoulders was too
heavy and the mental turmoil too confusing. Those days the only
relief was the four walls of my rooms, and the bed to sleep on, but
even this was not easy. My hungry stomach did not permit a peaceful
sleep, and the nightmares were full of bloody slaughters and German
hatred and to this was added the hatred of the Poles.
The most depressing of all was the search for families and
neighbors. The continued stories about crematoriums and the naked
truth of the German cruelties came to life. The days did not make
things easier. The Poles, walking by in their elegant Jewish
clothes, showed terrible hate for the few Jews who did return and
ask for the belongings, which they had left with Polish families.
Some of them were sent to Russian prisons as spies without
a court hearing. After a long struggle for life in concentration
camps, they were now sent to Siberia as political prisoners. The war
with the Jews did not end, but went on. It was not safe to walk in
the streets. Small groups of survivors were smuggling themselves
over the borders to seek another country and peace. Some of them,
enchanted by the Russian propaganda, were crossing the Iron Curtain
to see happiness in the land of the impossible. One thing we were
sure of - the country we were born in and loved as our own would
never give us a home. The people we loved and hoped to see after the
war were never coming back. The freedom we dreamed about for so many
years was not to be attained in Poland. I had a few zlotys left, and
instead of buying food, I decided to see my home as soon as possible
to make sure that if I left Poland, I would leave no one behind for
whom I cared.
ONE THING I knew for sure, I could not count on anybody to help me.
I was not a child any more. As soon as possible, I would start to
get an education, but the thought of getting food would interrupt
the plans, I thought freedom meant a home and food. I was homeless
and hungry; maybe someday things would change - some day, how far
was this day? Looking around me and facing some ruined houses, so
dark, staring back at me, I knew the day was far away. It would take
a long time until the lifeless, empty homes would be rebuilt and
filled with life again. So this was the beginning of a new life -
the whole world in front of me and no place to go. It was too late
to continue where I had left off. I was a child then now I was a
woman. What had I learned? I learned to be thankful for life;
learned to live from day to day; but it was an effort to be grateful
when life was a desperation. I ran into the open arms of freedom and
did not feel the embrace.
If I were not so alone; if I could only talk to someone - someone
who would care and love me. I felt a lump in my throat. I kept back
the tears - I did not want anybody to see them. No, I could not
endure this freedom and this loneliness - the realization of all the
people we longed for being dead make this freedom an agony. Pain
constricted my heart. Oh, God, please give me strength. And I crept
to bed in the darkness of the room to shed tears. This life was a
bleeding stab to my heart, and I kept thinking over and over again,
I had to go away. Next day, I sold the bed and I slept on the floor.
With the train ticket in my pocket, I stood near the door looking
around for the last time at the empty room that had given me my
first shelter after the war. I left it with a heavy heart, I walked
through the crowd of people of Czestochowa, knowing I would never
It was a short walk to the railroad station; people were rushing
towards the platform carrying suitcases and parcels. The loud
speakers was dearly announcing the departing trains, so here I was
among the crowds of people, going home again. They were all
strangers, not a familiar face.
"Czestochowa - Kalisz train leaving in ten minutes on Track 2." It
stood right in front of me. My legs felt paralyzed, I could hardly
move. Yes, remembering the trains in Czestochowa - all of a sudden,
like blinders slipped from my eyes, I saw the uncertainty of freedom
and knew that fear would always accompany me. The unspeakable fear
gushed upon me - now it could never be the same. It was a
fulfillment of a dark desire so far from happiness - I walked into
the train and sank into a seat. I was filled with the most hopeless
sense of finality. The wail of the train started to move. I looked
at the trees, the fields covered with a green carpet of grass - I
had a feeling of wonder like a child seeing things for the first
time. The air of freedom was intoxicating. I could feel the
vibration of the tracks, look at the yellow corn fields, so far and
so close. I looked at the small farm buildings and families working
together in the fields and the scene caused a pain the sore spot -
where am I going? Who is waiting for me at the threshold of my home?
The feeling of loneliness worked so strongly in me, every moment the
pain grew deeper. I was sorry I started the trip - I wondered if I
really wanted to go there again. My mouth was dry, the beat of my
heart so heavy. I made an effort to think. The train was rushing
noisily on the tracks and the sound was agonizing. Every squeak or
rattle seemed like the plea for water. I closed my eyes with horror
and fear. I covered my cars with both hands to kill the cling and
the clang of the train's iron. Once again before. me I could see the
faces of Jews behind the barred train windows. I could hear again
their cries and pleas. I sat motionless, like dead. I could not
move. I felt a terrible emptiness in me. Was this freedom and life?
Will those torturous years follow beyond any tight against them?
Now the open land looked like a graveyard and the buildings like
tombstones. I trembled in panic, the hours were dragging into
eternity. I looked at the people around me. I felt an alien among
them. Even the language they spoke seemed so strange to me and their
anti-Jewish jokes so revolting. Yes, I was afraid of them. With
determination I tried to sit erect. I did not want to be recognized.
I tried to smile to cover my terror and hunger. Those people were
going home to visit relatives - where was I going? What's left of
the pride of birth and wealth of home, once mine? My body was soaked
in cold sweat. I was afraid of being a Jew among thousands of hating
Poles, afraid of the dark and afraid of the day, afraid,
although free of prison, a prisoner of fear. I tried to drive the
fear away. I was weary. I tried to think about the past, to recall
my childhood, but it became faded. Desperately, I wanted to remember
days and moments, but they would not come. I wanted to be a child
again, to brush away the war years, but it was impossible. They were
so deeply engraved and hard in memory, never to be forgotten. Those
anti-Semitic jokes of the Poles did not make it easier. The country
I once loved so much closed it arms forever, and I hoped to leave it
as soon as I could.
With a startled look, I realized the nearness of my home town and I
needed so desperately to talk to some one about the feelings and
fears, but who would understand? The train came to a sudden stop.
With aching body, a little bundle in my hand, I stood on the train
steps, I stood and looked at the place I had left so many years ago.
I stepped slowly down; I felt a burning in my brain. How unreal were
the surroundings. I started walking; the past slid by my eyes.
Familiar streets, homes, stores; familiar and so strange. The dark
clouds in the sky hung over me. I walked faster and faster. Like
ghostly shadows, people from my past returned in my memories. I
stared around; with tenderness and agony, my past was reborn again.
With all the people passing me by, with the noises of the day, the
streets seemed to me motionless beyond life. The streets once so
dear to me I saw with a look of pain. Bewildered I kept walking,
avoiding the street I had lived on. No, not yet, I shall see it
later. I passed by the synagogue. I looked at the shut doors, broken
windows, the sacred words engraved in gold, half erased by German
knives. How well I still remembered the gleam of hundreds of lights
on a holy Sabbath, glittering through the windows. How awfully empty
now, was this house of God. With a tender look, I gazed around me.
Once upon a time these streets were full with Jewish life;
everything was still now after our great loss. I walked on. The
soft wind brushed against me and I felt breathless from pain.
Finally, I stood in front of my home. I slumped to my knees and
broke into sobs. I would not walk up - now now, not ever. I want to
remember it as I had left it five long years ago. I was aware, in a
dim, faint memory of the past, how many times I had run up those
steps to join my family at meals; now only pain existed; sobs choked
me. It seemed I could weep an ocean full.
About the Author ...
She met her husband in Czestochowa after
the war. They left Poland and traveled from country to country.
Finally, they arrived in Italy and were married in Venice. The
Synagogue of Venice, Mrs. Klein says, was opened for the first time
since World War II for their wedding and, she says, "We found that
every Jew in Venice came to honor us with music and dancing." They
lived in Italy four and a half years, during which time their older
son, Mike, was born; he is now 18. A second son, Larry, was born in
Pittsburgh; his is 11 years old.
Mrs. Klein is a member of B'nai B'rith and Pioneer Women and does
volunteer work for the American Red Cross. She speaks several
languages which she finds useful in her Red Cross work at Aspinwall
Veterans' Hospital, where there is always some patient eager to
speak in his native tongue.