Chapter 4

We left Łaskarzew and fled to Warsaw. We were terrified the murderers would come back. We moved in with my aunt – my mother’s sister – but nothing really changed. The Germans hunted the Jews here too, catching them in the street and sending them to do forced labor. Jews were beaten; they had their beards pulled out by the roots and were taken away never to be seen again.

Winter came and with it, heavy frost. My aunt’s home was not suffering any economic hardships yet. They owned a paint shop and were still selling off their inventory, though no new shipments were arriving. But then the money also started running out, and I looked for ways to earn some. For example, my uncle happened to have bought soap on the open market. It was forbidden to deal in soap other than to collect one’s tiny ration, distributed only to Christians. I’d fill my pockets with bits of soap and go to the marketplace, keeping an eye out for the Germans. At the market, I’d slide pieces of soap out of my pocket, one at a time and sell them off bit by bit. When the soap ran out, I found other sources of income. When someone in the neighborhood contracted typhus, all the residents of that apartment building were ordered to go to the public baths and present documentation that they had been properly disinfected. But there were always people who, fearing the Germans or other evils, avoided leaving home. They were willing to pay for the disinfection certificate. I would go and get fumigated in their stead and be paid for providing this service.

One day, I ended up at a soup kitchen designated for children and teens. It was supported by the local Jewish community or the Joint, [1] I don’t remember which, and one could get a free bowl of soup and a slice of bread. The food was served by boys and girls of about my age. Among them was a redheaded girl with braids and blue ribbons that reminded me of Rachelka. My eyes strayed in her direction, as if of their own volition. I was the last one left at my table. Without asking me, she brought me another serving, and said: “If you come a few minutes before the three o’clock closing time, you can eat your fill, because we usually have left-overs and then you can eat as much as you want.”

The next day I waited until five minutes to three before entering. Two other boys and one little girl were the only ones to show up after me. Five of us were seated at the last table. It seemed to me that the redheaded girl was giving us her personal attention, making sure we had all the food we wanted. When I finished, only a handful of kids remained in the dining hall. I was debating whether to offer to wait for her to finish her shift and walk her home. I was very lonely in Warsaw. I had no friends, though honestly I hadn’t tried very hard to make any. After my father’s murder, I was depressed, and going out to have fun seemed sinful. “But I don’t really intend to go out,” I told myself this time, “only to make a friend.” At that point, a vision of Rachelka tantalized my mind. “Do I mean to betray the love of my life?” I asked myself. “Of course not, but I’m unhappy and maybe this girl is unhappy too. We could just be friends.”

While I was still weighing up the pros and cons, I saw her putting on her overcoat and hat and getting ready to leave. All right, I’ll march up and offer to walk her out.

“Would you allow me to accompany you?” I ask her.

“Where do you live?”

“In the old city,” I answer.

“Oh! I live near there. Fine. Let’s go then.”

“What’s your name?” I enquire.

“My aunt calls me Ella, but you can call me Lyusha. What yours?”

“Herschel,” I say.

“I’ll call you Henik. It sounds more Polish. Nowadays, the less Jewish you look and sound, the better. And we’ll speak only Polish together, especially in the street.”

I accepted what she said. Her background was completely different from my own and therefore the conversation was interesting. We had a lot to tell one another. Her father was a doctor and her mother a high school teacher. She had two brothers, one older and one younger. The older one was a university student and the younger one was still in elementary school. In the bombing of Warsaw, both brothers and her mother had been killed. She was rescued from underneath the rubble with a broken arm, which in the meantime had been set and was healed. Her father had been called up to serve as an officer in the medical corps of the Polish army; he hadn’t come back home yet. His whereabouts were unknown. She was still hoping he was alive; maybe he’d been captured by the Germans or the Russians. But for now she was on her own, living with her aunt. Her stories touched on better times. Before the war, during summer vacation, the family used to go to the mountains or travel abroad – to Czechoslovakia or Austria. Once they visited Gdansk and she bathed in the Baltic Sea. She had a way of describing scenery and events that made them come alive. Her stories made quite an impression on me. I, for my part, told her about our little town and my heider. My stories made her laugh. She liked listening to me too.

At first I’d walk her to her aunt’s apartment. After a while we would take detours. We enjoyed wandering through a small park whose center was occupied by a fountain and pool. The water in the fountain cascaded over an umbrella cast in concrete, under which they’d put a sculpture of three children sheltering from the rain. We liked to sit together on one of the benches, stare at the fountain and talk. I would tell stories, listen to her, or daydream about the end of the war and the land of Israel.

Lyusha speaks in a quiet, pleasant tone, but a veil of sadness usually covers her eyes and face. She is sensitive and despondent, and cries often. She’s a Warsaw native and is familiar with the most beautiful spots in the public gardens and parks. From time to time she’ll take me someplace new. We look for concealed spaces; we don’t want to stand out. We sit on a bench or lie down on the grass. Everything around us is in flower and the scents are heady. But one’s enjoyment is partial, because everything is mixed with sadness, disquiet and occasional fear. I usually lie on my side facing Lyusha so as not to be seen: my complexion is dark and I look like a typical Jew. She sits and watches for approaching Germans, who also promenade in the parks with local girls. Lyusha doesn’t look Jewish; if anything, she’s Aryan in appearance. Whenever she senses something is off, she gives me a pre-arranged signal and I – as naturally as I can – hide my head in her lap. I can hear my own heartbeat. I don’t know what to make of it. Is my heartbeat the result of fear or excitement? She plays with my hair, a sign the danger has passed. I turn my face. I see her tender, caressing look and budding smile. Her head is bent over mine and locks of wavy hair, tossed by the spring breeze, fall over her forehead. They alternately conceal and reveal brown eyes that are sometimes enveloped by a fog of sorrow and sometimes gleam with a joyous light. Behind her, a flowering bush seems to crown her with a tiara of white flowers. For a moment I forget the war and the awful things that have happened. My arm lifts to embrace her neck and the sweetness of her lips slakes the burning thirst of my miserable youth.

The time I spent with Lyusha, were precious hours of comfort. We grew closer to one another. We walked arm-in-arm, kissing often. I was happy to have met her and felt good in her company. But I was pained by the thought that I was unfaithful to Rachelka, whom I really loved and missed. I told Lyusha nothing about Rachelka. She was sensitive and I didn’t want to sadden her. Our friendship made life more bearable for her. She often cried when she spoke about her parents or brothers. I pitied her and tears fell from my eyes too.

One day, as usual, I show up at the soup kitchen for lunch. I find Lyusha upset more than usual, her eyes red from crying. I’m impatient for her to finish her shift so we can talk. The minute we leave the dining hall, she can no longer keep it in and she bursts into tears.

“I’ve lost the only keepsake from my parents, a medallion with a chain. It’s missing.” She’s already gone to the park, searched the lawn and retraced the route we took yesterday without finding it. Now she has nothing left. No memento from the time she had a family. Even the clothes she wears aren’t her own. Everything was destroyed in the bombing. She was found unconscious and taken to the hospital. When she was dug out of the rubble, all her clothes were gone.

I do my best to comfort her.

“It’s a shame about the medallion,” I tell her, “but you’ll always have your memories. You recount them in such detail. But never say never. Let’s search again.”

We again retrace yesterday’s route, carefully searching every inch of the way, until we reach the little park. We look around where we were sitting, but still nothing. As we’re casting our eyes about, I suddenly remember that when we left we stopped at one of the benches close to the exit. We head that way and reach the same bench. Immediately she notices something gleaming behind it. She bends down and when she rises the medallion and chain are in her hand. Relieved and excited, she throws her arms around me and covers my face with kisses. I am happy for her, and the kisses are nice too, even though they don’t touch me the way Rachelka’s kisses did.

One day, Lyusha told me that her aunt and her family had decided to leave Warsaw and move in with relatives in the country. She had no choice but to go with them, because she had no family left in Warsaw. Our goodbyes were emotionally difficult. We never saw one another again. Everything was gone. Only my memories float to the surface, arousing pain and longing.

The German occupying authorities announce a separate residential area for the Jews of Warsaw. By a certain date, all Jews living outside the designated area must move into the neighborhood everyone is calling “The Ghetto.” My uncle runs around looking for another apartment and, after a long time and much trouble, locates half of a cellar room. In the meantime, the Germans start building the ghetto walls.

We don’t like it. We don’t want to move into The Ghetto. My mother, sister and I decide to return to the town we fled after my father’s murder. We have heard that, everything considered, life is pretty calm there. There have been no more murders after the Germans gunned down all the Jewish men in the forest. The problem is getting there; because by now, Jews are not allowed to ride the train. We don’t know if Jews are likewise not allowed to sail. We decide to risk it and leave Warsaw by a ship sailing down the Wisla. Our plan is to disembark at one of the nearby villages and make our way from the river to town – a distance of some twenty kilometers – on foot. Who knows? We may even be able to hire a wagon.

We gather our meager belongings, say goodbye to our relatives and make our way to the river pier. My mother and sister are dressed like peasants, their heads covered with peasant kerchiefs. I’m wearing a large peasant cap that falls over my eyes and manages to hide most of my face. All of this is an attempt to blend in with the other passengers who are mostly peasants from villages along the river. My sister, who speaks fluent Polish, walks up to the ticket booth and buys three tickets. We board. We sit down on a bench at the very edge of the deck behind a pile of packages and anxiously wait for the ship to set sail. As long as the ship is still docked, we’re terrified that Germans will board. The deck fills with passengers. The sharp toot announcing our departure startles us, but then fills us with relief. Within minutes, the ship has pushed off from the dock and has started moving south.

A light breeze was blowing, cooling the sweat that had broken out on me as we were waiting to move. I breathed deeply, suddenly free of the pent-up tension. I stayed calm and relaxed the entire trip, entranced by the scenery on either side of the river. But as soon as I saw people getting ready to disembark, my calm was disturbed and I was again afraid of Germans boarding somewhere along the route. Had it not been for that tension, the trip down the Wisla could have been a lovely outing. But my mind was aware of the risk we were running. I was delighted to arrive at our stop. We disembarked without incident and arrived in town safe and sound.

We again rented a room in one of the still-standing houses near the forest. My sister traveled to Warsaw and was able to trade a few more times, since the capital’s ghetto remained open. She used to take the ship along the Wisla, while the goods were carried by a Christian friend taking the train. We opened a small shop on one side of the rented room and sold some of the goods my sister got in Warsaw, as well as food we’d buy in town. We made a decent living, but the persecution was growing worse. The Polish press, directed by supporters (or advocates) of the Nazi regime, printed anti-Semitic propaganda. This had the effect of scaring the townspeople. Non-Jews were told not to have any contact with Jews. The Pole who’d rented us the room panicked and demanded we vacate the premises.

There was nowhere else for us to go. Having no choice, we were forced to use most of our savings to repair one of the stores in the burned-out shell of my late grandfather’s large house. The shop, which faced the central square, was about seven meters long by four meters wide. We divided the space in half: the front was our shop and the rear became our living quarters.

Traveling to Warsaw and bringing back goods became extremely dangerous. By now, The Ghetto was sealed. The Jews who managed to leave were now stuck on the Aryan side and vulnerable to extortion by various blackmailers. The town started seeing the arrival of Christians buying foodstuffs to smuggle into Warsaw and into The Ghetto, and we started buying and selling flour and legumes for these smugglers.

In our town, too, the anti-Jewish edicts were growing progressively worse. Every day seemed to bring a new decree making the routine of life more difficult. But as long as we were able to walk about freely, it was possible to continue to exist, if only just barely. We skirted some of the laws and the Jewish council would bribe the German gendarmes with money and gifts collected from the town’s Jewish population. It was thus possible to eke out some kind of existence. But once the ghetto in town was established and the Jews concentrated in it, most of the Jewish families had no income whatsoever anymore, other than a few individuals who continued to go outside the ghetto and risk their lives just to look for some way to feed themselves and their families.

[1]The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee , also known as the Joint or the JDC , founded in 1914, is a Jewish relief organization based in New York City. The JDC’s main purpose is to offer aid to the many Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East through a network of social and community assistance programs. In addition, the JDC contributes millions of dollars in disaster relief and development assistance to non-Jewish communities around the world.