Chapter 3

Father found us two days later. He said the German soldiers had taken all the townsmen to a spot outside town, separated the Jews from the Christians, then accused the Jews of having incited the war and threatened to kill them, but finally let them go. He had already been back in town only to learn that all the homes were burned, other than the house belonging to one of grandfather’s brothers, located next-door to the City Hall. The Germans seemed to have decided against torching the municipal building, so my great-uncle’s home was also spared. Many people had been killed or wounded, but from what my father had been able to glean, no one in the family had been hurt.

Several days later we made our way back to town. Some of the returning residents were sheltered in the cellars of their burned-out houses. Others scattered to neighboring towns. We took up residence with my grandfather and all his children and grandchildren in a single room in his brother’s house. He had invited all his brothers and their families to live with him until we could sort something out. The crowding was almost unbearable. At night the floor was completely covered by bodies. It was difficult to get to the bathroom and from time to time a child would start crying and wake everybody up.

In the morning, I woke up tired. I left the house to wander the streets. I made my way over to where my grandfather’s house had stood. I sat down on a pile of charred bricks, and thought, “How different everything looked just a few days ago.” I got up and continued walking toward our house. The scene was similar: a burned shell of a chimney and brick walls standing over heaps of ashes. I found my father standing where there had once been a warehouse full of coke. An industrial fuel derived from coal, it had not yet burned all the way through. Coke grows very hot and burns very slowly. My father was putting out the fire with water in buckets he’d brought from the stream. He was hoping to save whatever coal the fire had not yet consumed.

I saw my grandfather approaching, carrying a flask with warm soup for his son. My grandfather and father sat down on the stoop of the burned-out husk and my father sipped some soup. He held the flask out to me, but I shook my head, saying I could go home and eat there. I looked at the two of them: my father filthy, his clothing blackened by soot, and my grandfather, his face downcast and his clothing wrinkled, the gleam of his white beard gone. They sat hunched over looking like a pair of beggars. I felt ill. My grandfather was bemoaning the loss: “Decades of labor, gone in a day. Who has the strength to rebuild? To face old age without a penny…”

Father started comforting him: “We must thank God that we survived and that none of us was injured. A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved. The war has just started and God only knows what else awaits us. We must stay strong. We have to start from scratch. We’ve had years of joy and plenty. The property may be lost but our dignity is intact. All the good you did for others – no one can take that away from you. God will provide.”

On the town’s north side, several houses had been built within the forest itself. These houses had not been burned, probably because the Germans wanted the forest for their own needs. So my father went to rent a room in one of these houses. He bought some boards and built beds, a table and some benches. He also happened to come across some rustic white cloth that my mother made into bedspreads and a tablecloth. With the clean, white covers over the beds and table, made of new wood, the room looked pleasant and cozy.

On Friday evening, my mother lights Sabbath candles. We are all washed and dressed in clean clothes, and my father, as is his custom every week, welcomes the Sabbath by chanting his unique Kiddush melody. The feeling is festive. I’m relaxed once more. The war and its horrors have been squashed into a far corner of my mind; I am eager to forget it all. There is lots of food, we all eat our fill, and in this atmosphere my wish for Rachelka’s company is again roused.

Lately we’ve only been running into one another by chance. Both of us have had the sense that the time is wrong to be playing games the way we used to. We’d stop to chat, exchange impressions, and part without setting a time for meeting again. Deep inside, I dream of meeting her again, alone, for a quiet conversation of the sort we had when times were better. Would she still understand me? Does she also long for my company? I haven’t got a clue.

Rachelka was living with her family in a room in my great-uncle’s crowded house. Outside, all is desolate, and the sight fills me with grief. On the spur of the moment, I decide to look for Rachelka. It turns out that her family, too, has left my great-uncle’s place and gone back to their house. The brick walls of their house were still standing and Rachelka’s dad had covered one of the rooms with a makeshift roof. He’s stopped up all the windows but one, where he had attached a frame and set it with some glass shards. He had made a front door out of boards, so the house was protected from wind and rain.

I make my way to their house and Rachelka appears. She hasn’t changed. She’s as pretty as before. Compared to the people around her – where sorrow and suffering mark their faces, especially the elders – her beauty stands out more than ever. Her parents are anxious, “Don’t go far!” they tell her. As we talk, I steer her into a nearby room where only sooty walls surround us. I arrange some bricks scattered around and we sit down in relative comfort.

I don’t know where to start. I have so much to say, but I’m too emotional. I want to tell her how beautiful she is, how sweet and clever she is and that there’s no one like her. I also want to tell her how much I love her and want to kiss her. But how? Do you have to ask permission first? That seems stupid. I’ve never kissed a girl before. It also occurs to me that this may not be the right time. Now?! When everyone is scared and everything is in ruins?! She’ll probably think I’ve lost my mind and take off running. The Germans are after us and I’m being silly. So instead of revealing my confusion, I ask her what’s been going on with her and her family since the attack. This time she speaks and I listen. I don’t dare talk. I think that, if I start, everything will come tumbling out in a jumble. I prefer to dream. It’s so good sitting next to her. But soon I’ll have to get up and go. Night is coming. Her parents will be worried. My inner struggle rages. I have to tell her how I feel but not now. I need to find a better occasion. No! I’m telling her now. Maybe not everything, only a little bit. I finally whisper, “My childhood princess – look at the wonderful castle I’ve brought you to. It’s all yours. It has a dome decorated with glittering stars whose light magically speaks of your enchanting beauty. The language can only be understood by the one who knows the princess of the night, the princess of my dreams…”

Suddenly, Rachelka’s arms encircle my waist. She presses me against her and whispers, “You’re sweet. And how sweet it is that this awful reality, hasn’t smothered your wonderful, childlike dreams.”

She leans her head toward me, her face near mine and her lips are touching my lips. My senses whirl, my head grows dizzy and I feel enveloped in the most amazing sensation. My heart beats so hard I feel I’m about to faint.

Warsaw has surrendered to the Germans. All of Poland is under occupation. The surrounding villages are filling with soldiers who start coming to town and harassing the Jews. They round up the Jews for forced labor while humiliating them. The Jewish community is setting up a council – the Judenrat – that, using gifts and various bribes, is keeping the decrees somewhat tolerable. For example, one can bargain with the soldiers to reduce the number of people being forced to work. Finally, a number is agreed upon. Jews go out to work every day, everybody taking his turn according to the schedule fixed by the Judenrat.

My father recovers quickly, regroups and starts to earn money to support us. At first he travels to nearby towns that have not been affected by the fighting and brings back whatever he can. There is nothing to be had in Łaskarzew, so everything he manages to obtain fetches a good price. Later on, he hires a horse and buggy, fills it with foodstuffs and sets off for Warsaw. For the return journey, he procures goods missing in our town. The train is still not running and supplies are not arriving in sufficient quantities.

Later on, once train transportation has been restored, my sister is also enlisted in the job of moving goods on passenger trains to and from the capital. I would go to the marketplace with goods and offer them to the villagers coming to shop in town. My mother was running the household. We all had a role to play in making a living and we did the best we could under the circumstances.

The Germans continue to single out the Jews for harm. A new edict is issued almost every day. Other than the regular labor quotas that the Judenrat administers, Germans from elsewhere – who originally showed up to raid the Jews’ pitiful hovels appropriating the few belongings still left and any new items they’d managed to scrape together to eke out an existence – are also grabbing Jews and moving them to distant labor camps.

One market day, I’m walking away from the central square with an empty kerosene can. I plan to refill it with kerosene that I’ve hidden in one of the town’s bombed-out ruins. I run into a German officer. He takes the can out of my hands, sniffs it, and demands that I show him where I live and where I get the kerosene. I am short for my age – fourteen – so I pretend not to understand, hoping he’ll give up on me and leave me alone. But that doesn’t occur to him. He draws his pistol from its holster, presses the barrel to my forehead and clicks the safety off. I’m quaking and say, “Let me show you.” When he points the pistol away from my head and reholsters it, I start thinking about escape. I really don’t want to tell him where the kerosene is. Worse, I think, if he sees the amount of kerosene I’ve hidden away, he’ll undoubtedly demand that I take him to my home. And at home we have some goods and odds and ends we’ve barely amassed to start anew. Now what? I have no time to think. He’s walking next to me and I have no idea where to take him. At a loss, I decide to lead him home, but using a longer, more round-about route, hoping to bump into someone who’ll have enough time to warn my family. Maybe they’ll be able to hide some items. By now we’re halfway there.

Suddenly he stops and asks, “Is it far?”

“It’s one of the farthest houses within the forest,” I answer.

The German turns on his heels and starts to walk away. I’m left standing in the road not knowing what to do. Should I follow him? Wait for him? Run? I’m paralyzed with fear and can’t move. I wait for the German to get a head start, whereupon I run into one of the ruins. From there, I follow him with my eyes until he disappears around a bend. When I can no longer see him, I regain my breath and realize we’d been saved from disaster.

A few days later, my father’s two brothers come running to our house, telling us anxiously that a large truck has come to town. It’s parked at the central square and Jews are again being rounded up for the German labor force. A few minutes later, an armed German walks into the house and instructs us to follow him. He takes my father, his two brothers and me, and commands us to march in front of him in single file. On the way, we see other Germans steering Jews in the same direction. We all arrive at the truck parked in front of the police station at the square. Some Jews are already assembled next to the truck, including my grandfather, my great-uncle and two other male relatives. We are surrounded by armed German soldiers. My father turns to the highest ranking officer to ask that I be let go. He tries to explain that I’m just a child and not yet capable of doing physical labor. For some reason, the officer is persuaded. He points at me and at another two boys and tells us to scram.

I remain in town, standing off to the side with a group of Christian gawkers. I’m hoping that the Germans have gathered too many men and will let some of them go. Maybe they’ll release my father, I pray, but that doesn’t happen. The Germans command the men to climb into the truck. As the men are boarding, two Germans beat them with their rifle butts. I’m horrified. The truck starts moving. Something in me is urging me to follow the vehicle and see where the men are being taken. The truck takes the turn leading to the main Warsaw-Lublin road. I continue walking in the same direction. I’m closing in on the first houses in the neighboring village of Pilczyn.

Some villagers are out and about. I inquire if they have seen a German truck driving through. Yes, several answer. A few minutes later, I hear shots being fired. Pilczyn is a large village, built on both sides of the road. I continue walking until I reach the last house. The road continues for some time, weaving its way through fields and then entering the forest. Shots are still being fired. The echoes are coming from the forest to the right of the road. Terror grips me. Were the Germans shooting the men on the truck? I became slick with sweat. I felt weak, nauseous, my legs could no longer hold me upright. I sank to the ground at the edge of the roadside ditch. The shooting has stopped. The sound of the truck has receded.

The wind roused me. I got up and, on unsteady feet, continued to walk. I approached the forest and entered, turning in the direction from which I’d heard the shots. I wandered around for what seemed like a long time, looking and praying to find the men alive. They must be working here, chopping down trees, I try to delude myself. In that case, why is there only silence? Maybe the shots had nothing to do with them. Maybe they’re not working here at all. Maybe they’ve been taken someplace else.

The silence was oppressive. My anxiety was growing. I continued wandering around, searching the forest. Then I saw. The knowledge I’d tried to shield from myself was staring back at me. A bitter cry of: “God, why? Why, oh God?”, burst from me. I don’t remember anything else. I must have blacked out. When I again opened my eyes, I was lying on the ground. In front of me was a pit newly covered with earth, but not covered very well, for here and there clothing and human limbs stuck out. A heap of documents was placed at the edge of the pit. Among the papers I found an identification card with my grandfather’s photograph. My heart twisted within me. The pain was shocking.

When I finally reached home, no one would believe me. They wanted to believe it wasn’t true. By now, night had fallen and none of the men had returned. That night I didn’t sleep. I’d doze off for a few minutes, but then was startled awake in terror. I thought I could hear my father approaching the house. Listen! I could hear his footsteps. Now I was waiting for him to open the front door. But disappointment was swift. No one entered. My ear was attuned to every rustle, but in vain. My father was not coming home.

In the morning, the town dispatched a non-Jew on a horse to verify my story. I explained to him what route he had to take. I prayed that I’d been mistaken. But to our great distress, he returned with the same tale. “There wasn’t a single survivor,” he reported.