Chapter 5

Unlike the ghettoes established by the Germans in the bigger cities of Poland, the one in Łaskarzew wasn’t fenced off or walled in. The town’s Jews were merely concentrated in a small area on the west side of town. Around this area, the Germans set up signs that read: “Jewish residential area. Jews leaving are subject to death!” While it was theoretically possible to pass over to the Aryan side and return without too much difficulty, it was almost always fatal for a Jew to be caught outside the ghetto.

The home of my late grandfather, where we had repaired a room that served as both our shop and residence, was – luckily for us – within the area set apart to serve as the ghetto. This made it unnecessary for us to look for new lodgings yet again, a problem plaguing many community members. The harshest law was the one forbidding us to leave the ghetto because it cut us and the entire Jewish community off from making an income. Going to Warsaw to procure goods was too risky; there was no way to go and come back safely. Many of the Jews in the ghetto were forced into idleness, to live off of savings and then die of starvation. We found ourselves in a quandary: transgress and risk our lives, or obey, do nothing, and live off what we had left over?

The fear of the Gestapo gripped everyone, but especially the Jews in the ghetto. Many clung to the illusion that the war would soon be over. We looked around us and saw our relatives, friends and acquaintances: clearly, many had already lost their human guise. They were slowly dying of hunger, cold and disease. Many were virtually unrecognizable. The chance that the war would soon be over was small and it was doubtful these individuals would live to see its end.

I visited my old friend Moishele. Since the ghetto was set up, his father, Yitzhak, had not gone to the villages to drum up business. They still had enough food for minimal subsistence. Saraleh, his wife, and the boys begged him not to risk his life and leave the ghetto. Now, like most of the ghetto’s residents, they live in a make-shift room inside a burned building. The windows are boarded up with plywood and scraps. My friend, his brother and mother are sitting on the bed, the only piece of furniture left; all other furnishings have been chopped up and used for heating and cooking. They look ghastly, with ashy skin and cracked lips. They’re worried, no, terrified. For the first time – now that they’ve run out of every last crumb – Yitzhak has left the ghetto to look for work. We all know the danger of, God forbid, being caught outside the ghetto. No one says it out loud, but the tension in the room is palpable.

I try to calm everyone down. I tell them that I, too, leave the ghetto from time to time and that the Poles aren’t hostile. “They view the Germans as an occupying force and us, the Jews, as fellow sufferers… In any case, Yitzhak knows all the roads and almost everyone in these parts. He’ll know what route to take and who to watch out for. He’ll come back home, safe and sound, with God’s help.”

Yitzhak, fear pumping through his heart, goes to the villages and visits the peasants he knows well and trusts. He fixes their shoes, collects food, and waits for the moment he’ll be able to bring it all back to the ghetto to feed his hungry family. The thought that he is again providing for his beloved wife and children and is saving them from starvation gives him cheer and represses his anxiety in crossing back into the ghetto.

It is hard to describe the excitement and joy of Saraleh and the boys when Yitzhak walks in unharmed. It would also be wrong to underestimate the value of the goods he’s brought with him, after the empty bellies of the last few days. A pale ray of light again shines into the hovel and warms their heart, but not for long. One day, Yitzhak is approaching the town. He can see his house in the distance. All he has to do is cross the last thirty three meters or so before getting to the ghetto line. But the Gestapo is lying in wait and Yitzhak falls into their trap. The Judenrat tries to negotiate for his life and offers to ransom him. Saraleh and the boys trudge through the ghetto to raise funds, but nothing helps. The Gestapo takes both the money and Yitzhak’s life. His crime? Wanting to support his family and save them from starvation. The family is devastated.

I go to Moishele’s house to pay a shiva [1] call. I see his mother, but I don’t recognize her. Her hair has turned white, seemingly overnight. She looks like a wilted flower. The sheen of youth is completely gone. Her form has shrunk; her back is hunched and her eyes are dead. I sit down with the mourners and, in my memory I hear the voice of Yitzhak – the love of Saraleh’s life. One time, when his joy overflowed and he was bursting with happiness, he spoke to me as to an equal. I see him sitting in front of me; no one else is home. He smiles and leans towards me to share the secret of his family’s bliss. “I don’t quite know how to say this so that you’ll really understand what I’m getting at, but it’s something I feel I have to say, something I can’t keep to myself, so I’ll do my best. I’m sitting here working, remembering how my Saraleh runs out to greet me every time I come back from my travels and throws her arms around my neck and hugs me. My heart starts beating hard right away and it feels so full. I look at her – she’s as excited as a little girl with her bashful glance and her youthful face blushes slightly, and the pink goes so nicely with the black curls spilling down her white neck. There are all these color contrasts that emphasize her charm. I feel my spirit soaring to the skies, as if God Himself is embracing my soul… I don’t know how else to put this into words.”

I look for Saraleh with the black curls and charm and beauty and instead, see a prematurely old, gray-haired, crouching figure. The sights of mourning in that house lead me to the conclusion that it is better to die suddenly than to fall as a hopeless victim to slow death.

My mother, my sister and I decided never to relax our grip. As long as we still had the strength, we would do anything and everything to find new sources of income that would allow us somehow to survive, but how? What would we do next? After some thought, my mind constantly churning for ways and means, we came up with a dubious idea. We decided to start doing business with Polish smugglers. They used to come to town, buy foodstuffs and smuggle them to Warsaw, where – using underground passageways – the goods would find their way into The Ghetto. Now the smugglers can’t find anything to buy on the Aryan side because commerce used to be in Jewish hands. Ever since the Jews have been stuck inside the ghetto, there’s no one left to do the trading. The Christians in our town haven’t adjusted to the new order and have failed to step into the place of the Jewish dealers. Especially now, since it’s become a hanging offense as the occupying force has made it illegal to trade in foodstuffs. Commerce is carried out by a handful of Poles who’ve been licensed to distribute minimal portions of food, once a month, to the local population, and this in return for ration coupons.

We contacted some of the smugglers we knew in Warsaw. We asked what goods interested them in particular and what sort of prices they were willing to pay. Trusting we’d be able to get something together, we promised to fill their orders as soon as possible. At the same time, we also approached some of the Jewish tradespeople in the ghetto who had previously been involved in the grain processing business. They had kept in touch with flour mills in the district. We convinced them that the danger in shutting down the operation and ending up without a way to make a living was far greater than the risk involved of continuing to do business. To give an extra incentive, especially to those who were of particularly meager means, we assumed most of the financial risk by purchasing the goods and making a large down payment as soon as the order was placed.

While our suppliers started buying and processing the grain, we used the time to prepare an underground cache in a bombed-out cellar next to the shop we had fixed up; the room faced the interior courtyard, hidden from prying eyes. We built a roof over the walls still standing after the fire and dug out the floor to a depth of almost three meters. We covered the walls created by the dug-out earth with boards and installed a ceiling that was almost one meter below the natural floor level. We stuffed that space full of rubble. We created a hidden entranceway in a corner and covered it with a frame full of more rubble. With the entrance covered, it was completely camouflaged, indistinguishable from the rubble strewn about the floor. This hiding space was where we hid the goods provided to us by the traders. We then sold the goods to Christian smugglers, who snuck into the ghetto and smuggled them to Warsaw.

This was all highly dangerous and very difficult work. When the time came to bring the goods into the ghetto, we had to prearrange several well-hidden meeting places with the cart driver, who ferried the goods to us. The first spot was at the edge of the forest, some three kilometers outside the ghetto; the second was the ruin between the forest and the ghetto; and the third was an abandoned house near the ghetto. This was a precaution we took so that we’d have options depending on what was going on inside the ghetto and on its outskirts. If we saw that the coast was clear, we’d leave the ghetto, meet the cart driver and using alleys, lead the wagon with the goods from one meeting point to the next, until reaching our courtyard. We’d quickly unload the wagon and hide the goods in the cache.

Everything had to be done on a tight schedule. The best time was just before dawn. At night, there was a curfew and any noise or movement aroused suspicion. And during the day, we had to watch out for many hostile elements that swarmed the town. We had to avoid, among others, the German gendarmes, collaborators, stoolpigeons, extortionists, and especially the local Polish police force that knew every alley, path and road leading in and out of the ghetto. We had no choice but to arrive at an “understanding” with them: each policeman was bribed separately, as was the station commander. In exchange for a monthly payment in flour, they turned a blind eye to our activities.

In addition to the fact that we were risking our lives, this activity was laced with economic hardships. We had to finance the bribes and compensate anyone taking a risk. These expenses cost us much of the income and our cash reserves dwindled. But as time passed, we and the merchants supplying the flour developed mutual trust and we were able to pay for parts of the order after it was sold.

One day we ran into trouble. The wagon came face-to-face with a group of Polish policemen from the next town over. It was loaded with our flour and they confiscated the lot. But even in the midst of this disaster, we were lucky because the policemen decided to divvy up the loot rather than report it. Had they brought the wagon to the police station, it wouldn’t have taken the Germans long to get the cart driver to point the finger at us. What would have happened then is fairly obvious.

Although we weren’t caught, the danger was far from over. The merchandise had been taken from us and we were left without any money and with no way of ensuring our future survival. No less worrisome was the fact that we still owed the suppliers and had almost nothing to give them. When they heard what had happened to us, they came to comfort us without mentioning the debt we owed. Then again, they weren’t your normal peacetime merchants. These people took risks as well, and like us, fought hard to survive. They too, had very limited reserves. The thought of being left penniless terrified every one of us. We sold the rest of the flour we had hidden, but what we got for it was barely going to cover one-fifth of what we owed.

We decided to invite everyone over on a Saturday night to discuss the issue. There were three of them: two suppliers, who barely managed to eke out a living for their families, and a widow with five children. Her husband had been killed when the Germans occupied the town. We told them the true scope of the disaster, the damage we’d suffered and how little was left. We offered to divide the little money we had left among them and we asked them to continue to provide the flour: we would do everything we could to live even more frugally so that we’d be able to repay them in instalments. The atmosphere was tense, almost electric. We all knew what it meant for any ghetto resident to lose his source of income. This moment of extreme deprivation revealed their truly magnanimous nature.

The first to speak was the widow. Her name was Morolova, the feminine form of her late husband’s surname. She was clearly emotional, trying to keep herself from crying. A slight tremor affected her facial muscles. It was hard for her to talk, but she was adamant: “God forbid! We would never take the last money of our friends and fellow sufferers. We’re all in constant danger. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring. Today, more than ever, we must be considerate, kind and helpful. I appreciate your honesty and courage – which none of us have doubted – in making your offer. It doesn’t surprise me at all, and I don’t suppose it surprises either of my two friends sitting here. But my suggestion, which I’m sure everyone will accept, is that you keep the small amount you have left until you recover from the blow you’ve suffered. I am certain that I and my friends will continue to provide you with the goods the same way we did until now, without hesitation. And with God’s help, you’ll overcome this setback. I’m sure that as soon as you can, you’ll repay the debt to the last zloty.” The two other suppliers, each in their own words and style, seconded her offer. These weren’t empty words. They were clearly spoken from the heart. We were tremendously moved and grateful.

The suppliers continued to bring us flour as before. As fate would have it, our cache was at capacity when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. The roads and train tracks were co-opted by the army moving east, so it was impossible to smuggle goods. This caused the price of flour to skyrocket, meaning that we were able to pay off our debt all at once. We sold some of the stock, but retained a significant amount, enough to continue trading.

Our family was somewhat better off than before, but the condition of the other ghetto residents worsened. The sudden increase in prices meant that with every passing day, more and more people went hungry and came to the door to ask for a slice of bread. At first we gave away a loaf a day, but later on even three loaves weren’t enough. We couldn’t allow ourselves to share more than that. We continued to hand out as many or more slices than before, making each one a little smaller. But when hundreds were coming to the door and begging for bread, we were helpless.

Nothing was certain in our lives either. We often went to sleep without eating supper, in an attempt to save a meal. The hunger and lack of sanitation caused an outbreak of typhus. The disease visited every household and felled victims left and right. The Judenrat turned a ghetto building into a makeshift hospital where patients were brought, so as not to infect the rest of their family. The hospital’s beds were filled within hours. The help extended to the ill was minimal or non-existent: no treatment and no medications. Those who were strong enough to fight the disease survived and did so thanks to their own strength. Others, too weak to begin with, died without the benefit of care or warmth.

My mother got sick. My sister and I were extremely worried because people her age didn’t usually survive in the absence of proper medical care. Even before the war, she’d complained of having a weak heart, and surviving typhus required strength above all. At the improvised hospital, they made room for her in the secretary’s office and allowed a nurse to be with her to see to all her needs. The office window overlooked the street. Through the entire period of her illness, people congregated at this window to wish her well. From morning to night, people stood in line to wait for my sister to open the window so they could get an update on our mother’s condition. To me, this bordered on the miraculous. Under such difficult circumstances, when every ghetto resident had to cope with life and death issues as a matter of course, my mother was deemed worthy of such attention, worry and love from so many people. Wherever I went in those days, people would stop and ask me about her, and use the opportunity to tell me about some act of kindness she had bestowed on them. Each person had his or her own story. This reminded me of something that had happened when I was still little, at a time when we couldn’t have imagined a second world war or our ghetto existence.

I was on vacation from school. Although it was soon going to be Passover, the weather was still wintry. The days were short, darkness setting in early. It’s night. Outside the cold is fierce. I’m at home, I’m bored and I look for something to do; a game to play to while away the time. It occurs to me to talk my mother into playing checkers with me. She tells me I’m annoying her and am keeping her from her work. I can’t understand why she won’t play with me and do so happily. Isn’t it nicer to play than to work? Isn’t it more logical to work a bit and then play a lot? Just like at heider, where we learn for an hour and play for two. Fine, I get it: during the day, everyone is busy with school or work. I don’t understand why, but I know that’s the way things are. But at night? And without stopping for a game? That just doesn’t make sense. Even at school, though its schedule is so regrettably different from that of the heider, we get a ten-minute break every hour of the day. But to work all the time without stopping to play?

I explain to my mother how I see things. She’s not at all stupid, but for some reason, when it comes to games, she doesn’t fully understand my point of view, and then, to top it off, she says that I’m annoying her. Finally, at long last, she gives in and says, “All right, but just one game.”

Do I have a choice but to agree?

“Fine, one game, but first I’ll play against you and then you’ll play against me,” I negotiate.

My answer must have been to my mother’s liking because she smiles. So, guess what happens? We sit down and play, right? Think again. The minute we sit down, before I have a chance to set up the board with the red and black pieces, somebody comes calling at the door. They need my mother to visit Yankele, our neighbor, who has caught a cold and is sick in bed. My mother, you see, is a famous diagnostician and healer of common, seasonal complaints. To heal the sick, she uses common household remedies such as: hot cups, bandages soaked in rubbing alcohol, honey to coat the tongue and throat, various concoctions to ease coughs and the like. So because she is now attending to Yankele, the game is suspended even before it’s started. Seeing how disappointed I am, my mother agrees, by way of compensation, to let me accompany her.

We arrived at his house that evening to find him in a bad way. The house and everything in it seemed messy and neglected - a far cry from the usual state of affairs. Our neighbor, an elderly Jewish man, lay in bed coughing, groaning and complaining of body aches. A young woman of twenty or so stood next to his bed looking helpless. I couldn’t remember who she was – his daughter, or some other relative. His wife had passed away and his children had left home and scattered to other towns.

In the insufficiently heated room, a kerosene lamp shone dimly. The atmosphere was depressing. Normally, the old man made a living – of sorts – making candy. He was poor, as his business, if one could call it that, didn’t earn him enough to cover costs. He and his family had always only barely scraped by.

I should make it clear that this old man didn’t own a candy factory; he didn’t even have a workshop or proper machines or tools. He made his candy the way a home cook would, only in larger quantities. He’d make a sugar mass from sugar, water and aromatic additives, and then put the only piece of “professional” candy-making equipment he had to work. It consisted of two heavy metal rollers, stamped with candy shapes, and a hand crank. He’d push the sugar mass between the rollers and crank the handle to extrude the shaped candies on the other side. Much of his time was spent wrapping each individual candy in brightly colored paper, a necessary step because otherwise the candies would grow gummy and stick together in one big lump. As fate would have it, the old man happened to get sick at the worst time possible for him, just before the holidays, when it was possible to make a few zlotys.

My mother, brisk and full of energy, wasted no time. Her first instructions were directed at me: “Run to our shed and bring some firewood.” She gave me a basket for the coal and a small, almost empty kerosene jug, and told me to fill them to the top. When I returned she fed the fire, building it up so that it started to spread some warmth in the room. She added kerosene to the lamp, pulling at the wick until the light grew stronger. The former gloom was on its way to being dispelled. Then she turned to the patient, first covering his back with hot cups, then giving him a good massage, and finally placing a rubbing alcohol poultice on his back. She then brewed him a tonic. She sat down in the chair next to his bed and started to chat with him in an attempt to draw him out and help him forget his aches and worries.

Her treatment had an almost immediate effect. The patient’s spirits brightened visibly and his body also started feeling better. He spoke of his children, praising their good qualities, saying how good they were to him and with evident sadness, said they had left home. He defended their choice by rhetorically asking: “What do they have to look forward to, here, with me?” But he had a harder time reconciling himself to the fact that they had also abandoned their former way of life. “They’ve forsaken the Torah [2] of truth and replaced it with the Torah of communism. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that they want to improve the lot of the weakest and the poorest,” he said tiredly. “If only they believed in God, I wouldn’t care if they also amused themselves with lofty dreams of equality. Until, of course, their illusions shatter and they realize that their dreams are nothing but wishful thinking. If the Holy One, Blessed Be He, had wanted everyone to be equal, he’d have created us all equal and given us all the same assets. But is that the way it works? No. One is born big, the other is born small. One is strong, the other weak. Even fruit growing on the same tree at the same time, feeding from the same roots, aren’t the same. Look at my children: they can barely make ends meet yet they worry about the proletariat the world over. But what can you do? This, too, must be the will of our Heavenly Father. His ways are mysterious indeed.”

I’m sitting off to the side listening to him speak, looking at his deeply lined face and sunken eyes. A white beard frames his face; to me, he looks like one of the prophets of old. It occurs to me that he may be one of the thirty-six nistarim [3]. I remember how only a few months ago, during the Festival of Purim, [4] my grandfather provided barrels of beer for the congregation. The congregants raise their glasses in toasts, drink their fill, and are ready to leave for home. But, for our neighbor, this is not enough. He raises his voice in song and starts to dance. He draws others in, and the circle soon expands. Now enough people are dancing so that there are smaller circles within the larger circle; the singing is loud enough to raise the roof-beams. To boost the merry-making, our neighbor starts to act tipsy. He flips his cap around so its brim covers his neck, flings the coattails of his kapote [5] over his shoulders, and weaves among the dancers as if drunk. Everyone laughs: “Look at Yankele, he’s drunk!” The comical atmosphere and laughter have an especially powerful effect on us, the children. We take advantage of the opportunity to make more noise with our noisemakers [6]. Earlier we made noise during the reading of the megillah [7] , every time Haman’s name was read. Now we’re just doing it for fun. When the congregants finally tire and leave the synagogue, I see our neighbor rearrange his clothing, turn his cap the right way and leave with a sure, steady gait. I conclude that he’s certainly not drunk now and was probably not drunk before either. Just play-acting in order to make his fellow Jews laugh and be merry in honor of Purim, and if that meant that they were laughing at him – then never mind.

As they continue to talk, my mother and Yankele discuss his pre-holiday candy orders. We know that he’s postponed buying or paying for things he needs until after getting the income supposedly generated by the orders placed this time of year. Mid-year, orders are few, sometimes non-existent. And now, at high season, he’s sick and he’s had no time to prepare. “I can barely fill the orders when I’m well,” our neighbor explains to my mother, “but now it’s out of the question. I guess I have no choice but to go without an income.”

My mother won’t give up. She offers to help, immediately starts asking questions and getting organized. She turns to me and tells me that, as long as I’m on vacation from school, I am to recruit a few friends to help wrap the candies. But then it turns out that our neighbor doesn’t even have the money for the raw materials. My mother doesn’t despair. She solves this problem by providing the sugar, firewood and coals – the main items needed for making the candies, all of which are sold in our shop – on credit from our store. He has the other ingredients needed on hand. With our neighbor’s guidance, the young woman starts boiling the sugar and the other ingredients. Soon enough, she’s gotten the hang of it and refuses my mother’s offer to help with the cooking.

The next morning I went to see Rachelka. She got some of her girlfriends together, while I approached some of the boys from school. Two days later, a merry band of some ten children sat down in Yankele’s house to wrap candies. We sang as we worked, and from time to time, stopped to suck on a candy. We smacked our lips, joked loudly and filled the house with childish laughter. The work continued this way for three hours every morning the entire week. In the afternoon, we had to go to heider as usual, but that was fine: we were very popular because of the fistfuls of candy we distributed, the wages of our work.

On the last day, as we finished up, we received tea and cake that the young woman had baked to celebrate the successful completion of all the orders. Yankele, who in the meantime had made a full recovery, sat down at the head of the table, raised his head, looked upwards, and recited the blessing over the tea. He then thanked God for the wonderful people He had sent his way during his illness. Yankele turned to us and added, “May God bless you and make your heart rejoice forever, just as you made my saddened heart rejoice. May rays of light shine on your faces, just as you renewed the spring of joy of my tears, which had gone dry with age. I pray that you all live to rejoice in the coming of the Messiah and have lives filled with love in our Holy Land.” Two teardrops, like pearls, rolled down his cheeks and disappeared into his white beard.

Now, as I did before, I think: “There is no doubt about it. He’s one of the thirty-six righteous

ones, thanks to whom the world continues to turn. His blessing will definitely come true.”

During my own mother’s illness, I came to realize, on the basis of the stories told by the people who had been asking about her, that the help she extended to Yankele was only one act of kindness among many. Visiting the sick and helping others were the most important things in her life. This was especially true in the fall and in the early spring. When the weather is unstable and can change several times a day, surprising people not properly dressed, they catch a cold. This is mostly true for children who tend to mock the experience of their elders, and therefore disobey them and go out without a coat. But many of the poor are sick, as they don’t have a coat to begin with. Besides the mercurial weather, they also have to contend with poor nutrition and aren’t immune to the seasonal ailments like the flu, diphtheria, bronchitis and various inflammations.

At that time, the town had no resident licensed doctor. There was a healer of sorts, an arrogant individual, with an inflated sense of self, who treated his patients with disdain. He also charged dearly for his services. The town folk disliked and distrusted him and went to him only in dire emergencies. Behind his back, people used to joke and say: “His specialty lies in relieving his patients’ wallets, not their diseases.”

My mother, on the other hand, after several successful diagnoses, treatments and healings, became famous. At first, mainly the poor – those who couldn’t afford the rates charged by that so-called healer – came calling. As time passed, even the wealthy consulted her. They had faith in her because they saw how responsibly and carefully she treated them. Whenever she was uncertain about a diagnosis or concluded that the disease needed the attention of a specialist and medication, she’d refer them to the right practitioner. In those cases, she’d advise the patients not to waste any time but to go to the licensed doctor in the province’s capital. He was a fine and understanding physician. If necessary, my mother often arranged for the expenses and transportation herself. On occasion, she’d accompany the patient on the tiring journey, made by horse-drawn wagon on unpaved roads. She did all of this without any expectation of recompense. She would often make sure to stock the patient’s house with the necessary supplies and raise money on their behalf. When she diagnosed diseases that were relatively mild and that she could treat herself, she did so with unstinting devotion. She would often stay next to the sickbed for hours at a time, and overnight too, working hard to ease the patient’s suffering and going home only once the patient’s condition had improved.

All her kindness, devotion and successful healing were recounted by her former patients and their relatives to their neighbors, families and friends, so that her circle of admirers grew from one year to the next. Everyone trusted her diagnoses, and she was respected and adored by all.

When I thought about all the praise coming from so many different people, as well as the case of Yankele, our neighbor, an event I witnessed myself, I try to cling to the hope that maybe, thanks to her actions, my mother will overcome this illness and recover. But for now, her health is not improving. On the contrary, she grows weaker by the day. My sister won’t move from her side, tirelessly caring for her. The townspeople too are determined and continue to stand at the window, ask about her, and wish her well. The Judenrat even gets permission to bring in a doctor from a nearby town, but he isn’t hopeful either. However, despite the terrible diagnosis, and against all odds, my mother recovers. The crisis passes and slowly, but surely, she regains her former strength.

One summer morning in 1941, German soldiers dressed in black arrived in town riding on motorcycles. The rumor had it that these were the dreaded SS – the Schutzstaffel [8] with their twin lightning-bolt insignia, known for their viciousness. It would be necessary to be more careful than ever. Evidence was not late in coming. Only a short while after their arrival, they raided the ghetto and started beating residents at random. Anyone who happened to be outdoors, fell victim to their abuse. At first we were afraid to leave the house, but we soon discovered that the SS, too, was not immune to bribes. In exchange for gifts from the Judenrat, even the SS reined in its behavior to some degree. But if anyone was caught transgressing one of their decrees – God have mercy on him. If a Jew was caught outside the ghetto, or if a Jew was merely suspected of having been outside the ghetto, his fate was sealed. No gifts and no bribes would help because that individual would not leave the SS headquarters alive.

All trade and smuggling ceased at once. It was hard to follow the movements of the SS. They rode motorcycles and could therefore enter any alley or dirt path. There was no noisy car engine to alert you to their arrival and you couldn’t always see them from afar or follow their movements. The element of surprise was theirs. How or when they’d appear was impossible to know: before you could register a thing, they’d be right on your heels, or by your side. Our suppliers stopped operations, thus putting an end to our activity as well.

The truth is that at first I was a little bit relieved. We still had some earnings to live off and I could finally let my guard down. I’d been tense for so many months. After a few days of rest and relaxation, I felt my youth stirring in me again. I yearned for childhood dreams, a fierce desire to tramp through nature and talk at leisure with Rachelka, the princess of my dreams, just as I had done as a child.

The ghetto is crowded both indoors and out. Entire families must share a single room. There’s no privacy anywhere. There is no greenery outdoors; not a single tree, bush or flower to lift one’s spirit. Leaving the ghetto just for that is out of the question. There’s absolutely no logic, no justification for so rash an act. Besides, there’s no way Rachelka would agree. And even if she were to agree, I don’t dare risk it. More importantly, I don’t want to jeopardize her safety.

Our encounters in the ghetto happen by chance. Both of us are preoccupied, always burdened by something. The unrelenting fear and the danger to ourselves and our loved ones weigh us down. We’re anxious all the time and there’s no end in sight. The press, which has been co-opted by the occupying forces, glorifies the Nazi victories, especially those on the eastern front. The Red Army is being vanquished, falling into disarray and retreating. The war seems as if it is going to go on forever. There isn’t the slightest reason to believe Hitler will be toppled, something that would give us a sliver of a hope.

Because I’m now idle, I leave the house and wander the alleys of the ghetto. I’m looking for a quiet corner that would bear at least a passing resemblance to one of those beautiful spots in nature I remembered from childhood. I’m looking for a place where I can be alone with my beloved, forget the present and shut the nightmare out for a few precious minutes, to remember the past and dream of a better future.

I wander at random and find myself at the last house before the stream at the edge of the ghetto. I look at the water; it flows as it always has, tiny fish darting here and there and hiding among the smooth stream-bed stones. Now and then they break the rays of the sun reflected in the water. Everything is just the way it’s always been. Nothing’s changed.

Only I’m not allowed to go in the water because the stream is decreed to be outside the ghetto. A sign has been posted on the bank indicating that entrance to Jews is forbidden. I continue to walk along the bank toward the yard. There’s a rickety old stable at its edge. I walk around it and am rewarded with the sight of a green field strewn with flowering ragwort. Dense vegetation grows on the stream bank to my left; trees cast their shadows over parts of the field and hide me from the direction of the stream. Across from me, not far from the stable, there’s a hedge hiding the plot from the field. I don’t know where the ghetto ends - next to the house? Next to the stable? Maybe at the hedge? I’d like to believe it is at the hedge. It’s beautiful here. And quiet. Birds are chirping. It’s a slice of paradise.

The next day, Rachelka and I lie down and rest in the shade of these trees, hidden on three sides by the stable, the trees and the hedge. Only the sky is open all the way to the horizon, unhindered by fences or barriers. The sky is reflected in Rachelka’s bluer-than-blue eyes, in which I can see an entire universe. The scent of the field, the carpet of flowers, the beaming sun, the loveliness of the trees and shade help me forget the wretchedness of the present.

Once again I start to dream out loud. I dream of the end of the war and the defeat of the Nazis, of the day we’ll sail ships flying the blue-and-white flag. Not hidden from sight, but out in the open, rippling in the wind under the sun, as we make our way to the land of our dreams, the land of Israel. There, with restored energy, we will build a free country for the Jewish people so that we and our descendants won’t have to suffer any more persecution and indignity in foreign lands.

Rachelka, her eyes shining, listens raptly. She’s caught up in my dreams. She comments, improves and embellishes the dreams with utmost seriousness, as if all of it is coming true tomorrow. I see her rise and soar in my imaginary world. Encouraged by her high spirits, I tell her how beautiful she is and how wonderful it is to be with her. I embrace her and we kiss.

“And when will all of this happen?” she asks.

“Soon, very soon.”

“How do you know? How can you tell?”

“It’s obvious,” I answer.

“Obvious?” she asks.

I laugh. I’m feeling good. “Let me explain. Have you ever seen a fortune-teller read somebody’s palm? Well, I read our future in your eyes.”

“And what do you see in my eyes?”

Hmm. “Let me look a little more before I say anything else. All right: first of all, they’re big and bright. They speak softly and are more beautiful than anything. They are as blue as the sky and as deep as the ocean, and in their middle are tiny dots, like the immigrant ships sailing to Israel’s shore. But you mustn’t get angry or sad, Rachelka, because then the seas grow vicious, gale force winds rock the ships, and I’m terrified of drowning.”

“In that case, you have nothing to worry about,” says Rachelka, “because in moments of despair I can take out the magic flute and play enchanted tunes that will stop the storm and calm the waves, which will rock gently in the light breeze blowing from the land, carrying the entire melody of ‘Hatikvah.’ [9]

Suddenly, I’m embarrassed. Wretched, even. I look down and ask her: “Tell me, Rachelka, are you making fun of me and my stories?”

“Don’t be sad! On the contrary, your stories are wonderful and your dreams even more so. See, despite all the years that have passed, I remember every last detail.

“You’re amazing.” I’m moved. I wrap my arm around her waist and hold her tightly.

A few days later we had to stop meeting there because some children, herding their cattle nearby, saw us. As it was doubtful the area was, in fact, part of the ghetto, we preferred not to risk going there again. But those few days of hopes and dreams in the middle of a universe of hatred and loss left an indelible impression on me. They were the glory days of my being.

We could no longer afford to sit around doing nothing. Despite the inherent danger, we were again forced to plan some kind of commercial activity, at least at a subsistence level. Our regular suppliers had stopped coming because of the difficult economic situation and out of fear of the SS. But we had no choice. We were perilously close to having nothing left. We convinced ourselves that we mustn’t stop trying as long as the war raged and starvation threatened. We had to come up with fallback plans while taking the most stringent precautions possible.

We approached a family that had been expelled from their home in a nearby village and forced into the ghetto because of their Jewishness. We assumed – correctly – that these people, as villagers, had several advantages over the townies. They were well acquainted with the surrounding area and especially knowledgeable about the lesser used paths around their own and neighboring villages. They knew the peasants first-hand, who was trustworthy and who was not. They also knew all the flourmill owners and managers and were friendly with several of them. Given all of this, we realized it was worthwhile to try to convince them to join us and together organize a future commerce in food. Since coming to the ghetto, the members of that family had earned nothing and were living off whatever supplies they had managed to bring from the village. As far as we knew, they were running out of supplies and were constantly worried. It seemed like the right time to talk them into joining our venture.

We had gotten to know them because of something that happened shortly after their move to the ghetto. There were four in the family: a childless couple in their forties and the husband’s elderly parents. One morning, the old man woke up early and went outside for a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, an odd movement caught his attention. It was coming from a hay-laden wagon abandoned in a yard. The old man went over to check it out, to see if something or someone was hiding in the hay. To his surprise, he discovered a little girl of about eight or so, shoeless and in tatters. She was fast asleep, but shivering quite hard. When the old man tried to wake her up, she panicked, covered her face with her hands and begged him not to beat her. It was difficult to calm her down and assure her he wouldn’t hurt her, that he wasn’t even mad at her. She quieted down, but continued shivering, either from fear or from cold. The old man brought her indoors, where the other family members surrounded her and tried to get her to talk. She continued to tremble and was unable to get as much as a single coherent syllable out of her mouth.

In the meantime, they noticed she was wearing a chain with a small crucifix around her neck. So the child was Christian. She eventually calmed down and told her story. Her parents were dead. She was in the care of relatives. She had nowhere to go now because the head of the household, whom she called “uncle” and who beat her all the time, had thrown her out of his house the previous day. She had no home and was asking to stay. They started explaining that she was in the home of Jews in the ghetto, that they weren’t allowed to have a Christian staying with them and that surely her relatives were looking for her.

The moment the girl heard she was among Jews, she burst out in tears and revealed the truth. She now said she was the daughter of a Jewish family in the Warsaw ghetto. Her parents had arranged for her to stay with Christian acquaintances in exchange for money and valuables; however, those people had shipped her off to their relatives in a village near our town. At first, they treated her reasonably well and put her in charge of their three-year old son and his baby brother. She would watch the children when the parents worked the fields and went to sell their produce at market. Sometimes they would take her and their boys into the field with them, put all the children in the shade where she would keep an eye on the boys and feed them. But the “uncle” who had a bad temper, would get angry with his wife, his boys and especially with her. A few months ago, the Warsaw relatives – the ones who had shipped her off – came to visit and there was a huge fight. Based on bits of conversation she overheard, the child realized the argument was over the money her parents had paid for her safekeeping. Immediately after their relatives left, the attitude towards her worsened. The family worked her hard from early in the morning to late at night. The man was particularly cruel. He beat her often and called her filthy names. Finally, yesterday, he brought her here in the wagon and abandoned her.

The girl continues telling her story, stopping now and then to beg not to be returned to these peasants because the “uncle” will kill her. She promises to be good and do anything they want her to do, if only they’ll let her stay. She lifts her dress and shows them her bruises: souvenirs of her beatings.

“One time, when uncle got drunk,” she says, “I thought he was going to kill me, but his wife stopped him. I was afraid to go to sleep. I stayed awake for a long time and fell asleep only after I heard him snoring. I always had nightmares and I’d wake up and shiver with fright…”

The child goes on with her story. By now, everyone is crying. The family members are all convinced that the girl is Jewish and they have nothing to fear because no one is going to come looking for her. There’s also nowhere to take her, so everything must be done to help her. But first they have to calm her down. They tell her they aren’t going to return her anywhere, that she will be staying right there. They give her some warm soup and a slice of bread, bathe her in a large basin with water they heat on the stove, dress her in a clean shirt and put her to bed to rest.

When the wife bent down to tuck her in, the child wrapped her arms around her neck and kissed her. Tears of joy streamed from both faces and mingled together. A short time after the child fell asleep, she woke up in a panic. She was feverish and remained ill for several weeks. Thanks to the family’s devoted care, she recovered, but remained pale and weak for a long time to come.

An acquaintance, who lived nearby, told us about the child and her adoptive family, and suggested that we and some other families assume responsibility for helping the family support the child so that she could regain her strength. According to him, the family was living extremely frugally and didn’t have the wherewithal to provide for her too. To help them help the poor child, we and several other families agreed that each of us would take the child one day a week. That was how we became friendly with the adoptive family. Once a week, I’d walk the child over to our house in the morning and walk her back in the evening. During those walks we talked and so I came to know more about the adoptive family and grew familiar with their background, which in turn led to my idea of offering them a joint commercial venture.

The family had initial doubts, but their deliberations were finally decided by the fact that they had virtually nothing left. So they agreed to cooperate and divide the profits equally. Together we started planning how to trade in the foodstuffs we intended to smuggle into the ghetto and sell to the smugglers who were still coming in.

After a period in which we traced and learned the schedules and habits of the enemy, especially the SS, we snuck out of the ghetto to the villages the family knew. Several peasants sold us wheat, whereupon we started to look for amenable flourmill managers who’d be willing to grind our grain. We were almost always refused. Most were afraid to have any contact with Jews. But we finally found one manager who, in exchange for a hefty sum, agreed to mill our wheat on a one-time basis. We had similar successes a few more times with different managers, but we always worried this was the last time our luck would hold. What would happen next? What would we do with the grain if we had no way of grinding it? In the meantime, we invested the last of our cash in buying grain. We still had some flour in our hiding place, but that was set aside for the Polish police for their monthly bribe. It would have been fatal to ruin our relationship with them because without them we stood no chance of continuing our business.

There was one man on the Polish police force that used to talk to us. He justified taking food for nothing by saying that he recorded every transaction. As far as he was concerned, he was buying on credit.

“When peace comes and I get a normal policeman’s salary again, I’ll save up and pay off my entire debt,” he used to promise. The fact that he wanted to repay us and felt uncomfortable taking flour from us gratis told us that we were dealing with a man who had a conscience. We therefore asked him to bring the grain to the flourmill for us; that way, he’d be earning what he got from us fairly and wouldn’t remain indebted to us. He was happy to accept the deal. To make it work, we had to find a different cart driver so that the mill owners and their managers wouldn’t make the connection with us. Each time we directed him to a different mill and it worked. Of course, none of the other problems and risks disappeared, but thanks to the policeman we were among the few ghetto families that still managed to make a living.

Making a living wasn’t the only difficulty with which we had to contend. For example, it was imperative to avoid getting swept into a forced labor camp. The Germans had set up such a camp some sixteen kilometers from town. There they assembled Jews from the entire province and kept them busy draining the marshes created by the snowmelt. At that time of year, the river would overflow its banks, flood nearby lowlands and turn the region into a bog where reeds grew like weeds. The laborers were forced to dig drainage ditches and transport the earth in trolleys to the riverbank to build embankments to stop the flooding. The camp was called Wilga because it was located near a village by that name. From time to time, members of the German gendarmerie would come to town, swoop down on the ghetto, grab Jews at random and take them to the camp.

The shop afforded us a good vantage point overlooking the police station, allowing us to follow the goings-on there. We kept track of the trucks arriving there, and as time passed, I learned to distinguish ordinary trucks from trucks designed to transport Jews to the camp. If my suspicions were in any way aroused, I had plenty of time to flee the ghetto. I also came up with a solution for the night raids. I used to sleep in the attic and pull the ladder in behind me. The Germans coming to the house would be told by my mother that her husband had been killed and there were no other men in the house. Mostly they wouldn’t search because they always found enough people elsewhere to fill their truck. What they didn’t find at our house, they’d find at our neighbors’ house.

But once, despite all my precautions, they managed to surprise me and I was caught in broad daylight. They brought me to the collection point, where the truck was waiting along with some eighty of the town’s Jewish men. From those waiting there before me, I learned that this time we were being taken to a different labor camp, located far from town. That meant that if anyone managed to escape he had no chance of making it back home without getting caught because of the distance and the unfamiliar territory. I assessed the situation and concluded that I had to try to act now, before being moved from town; otherwise, all was lost.

I’m considering the options and waiting for just the right moment to make my getaway. In the meantime, the order is given to line up in three rows. I try to get to the back of the third row – as far from the truck as possible and behind someone taller than me. The first rule is not to stand out and get noticed. Of the eight Germans standing around near the truck, five enter cars and drive off. Of the three Germans left, one starts to sort us out so that the weak and elderly are separated from the rest. There are now two groups of roughly the same size. I conclude that, because there’s only a single truck, they’re only going to take the younger and stronger bunch, in other words – my group. The other group will be returned to the ghetto.

Taking advantage of the moment when the Germans aren’t looking in my direction, I bend down and, behind the third row, scooch from my group to the other. I shiver with fear that the German sorting us will see that I’ve moved. I use another propitious moment to retreat behind a nearby house, jump over the fence into the yard and hide behind a storage shed.

But I run into trouble. From her window, the homeowner has seen me jump into her yard to hide. She comes out running. She’s scared and demands that I go back to wherever I came from. She says she’s not willing to risk her and her family’s lives as anyone might rat her out for having allowed me to hide without reporting it. I see that persuasion isn’t going to work. All she has to do is raise a ruckus and I’ll be discovered for sure. I have no choice, but to go back. I climb back over the fence, but I’m still hidden from sight by the house. I hunch down and stick my head out just a bit: I can see the rows of Jews, but the Germans are hidden behind them. Still hunched over, I walk back and take my place at the end of the third row in the group made up of the old and the weak. A man next to me agrees to trade places, so that I’m again standing behind someone taller than me. The minutes seem like an eternity. My heart is beating hard with fear. Before long, a command is issued. The first group is ordered to board the truck and the second group – mine – is told to return to the ghetto.

The situation in the ghetto is getting worse from one day to the next. As time passes, most people’s resources are disappearing. Only the very few – risking their lives in the process – manage to get their hands on something to support themselves and their families. Now there are also rumors that the people supposedly being transported to the east are instead imprisoned in camps, murdered and that no one ever comes back from there.

Shipping wagons filled with Jews rumble eastwards on the train tracks outside the ghetto. If it so happens that a track is busy, and the train stops for a short while at the station near our town, we hear people begging for drops of water and can barely make them out behind barred openings covered with barbed wire. They also recount tales of horror bad enough to make your hair stand on end. They say that the Germans packed them into the shipping wagons, while beating them with their rifle butts, shooting anyone not boarding the train fast enough. Out of terror, they pushed in, whereupon the Germans slammed the doors shut. At once, the wagons grew stuffy, hot and depleted of air. The weak and ill, especially the children and the elderly, start suffocating to death. Their bodies are heaped one on top of the other in the wagon. The groans of the suffering and dying can be heard in every wagon.

But this doesn’t penetrate the consciousness of many of the ghetto residents. The information cannot be absorbed because many don’t want to believe it. Some say that the rumor mongers are anti-Semites, telling stories just to frighten us. Sometimes the rumors are related by Christians who happen by the station. They see things, hear things that shock them, and so tell others. Although many are honest, decent folk, there are still those in the ghetto who say, “As long as we haven’t seen this with our own eyes or heard it with our own ears, we’re incapable of believing them.”

But deep within, the terror that it might all be true eats away at all of us. From time to time, we hear of yet another ghetto being liquidated.

A Jewish girl arrives from the ghetto of Otwock, a city located some twenty-five miles away. She managed to escape the ghetto liquidation and recounted the horrors she witnessed: “The Germans and a group of Ukrainians, collaborators, went crazy when the ghetto was liquidated and the people were being moved to the train station for their ‘transport.’”

Every time we hear of the dismantling of another ghetto, we realize the liquidations are coming closer to our own town. The German commander of the occupation police of the regional council in Garwolin demands presents from the Judenrat, promising each time, “The towns in my district – there will be no ghetto liquidations in them. I have connections with the regional headquarters. I advocated on your behalf and I’ve received explicit promises…” No one believes him, but he still manages to extort gifts from the Jews in the ghettos under his command. They part with their very last means of survival to postpone the evacuation.

One clear morning, two Jews arrive. They escaped during the night from the ghetto in Sobolew, a neighboring town within our regional administrative council. They say their ghetto is surrounded by Germans and collaborators who are herding all the Jews to the central square for “transport.” This validates our own fears that our region will not be spared either. Our turn will come tomorrow or the day after – at most within the next few days. The marauders will come to our ghetto too. All those still capable of walking don’t know what to do with themselves.

They go from door to door, asking one another, “What do you think we should do?” But who can give advice at a time like this? Fear is visible in most eyes. If anyone, out of habit, starts to smile, the smile immediately freezes and disappears.

The rumor spreads outside the ghetto too. Christians sneak into the ghetto asking for all sorts of goods and possessions. They have the gall to say: “Well, you’re not long for this world in any case. What do you need your stuff for? Instead of the Germans getting it all, give it to us.” Despite the fact that our fate is obviously sealed, their words are like a knife in the heart.

My sister and I consider escape. My mother refuses to discuss it. She says it’s pointless, not worth the suffering. We beg her. But then my sister declares: “If mother is staying in the ghetto, I’m staying, too.”

In the meantime, we try to sell to the Christians outside the ghetto all that we can. Here and there, hope flickers: “Maybe we’re not going to die and we’ll need the money.”

My six-year-old cousin, Rivkaleh, who lives next door is doing brisk business. Every few minutes, she takes something from the house, runs to the pots and pans store outside the ghetto and brings back a few coins. She proudly puts the money on the table, claps her hands and jumps up and down with joy. Nobody tells her what we’re expecting. We let her and the other children run around as they please. There’s no longer any point in restraining them. The end is known and near.

A few days later, yet another Jew from a nearby town arrives and tells us that the Germans rounded up all the Jews from the ghetto, made them sit in the square and started firing machine guns at them. All died. He was wounded. He played dead for several hours and, after dark, crawled away and escaped.

That night, several of my sister’s friends gather at our house for an evening of goodbyes to friends and life itself. My sister serves tea. She and her friends sit in a circle and sing sad songs until late. Everyone hugs everyone else. Nobody speaks. There’s nothing to say.

Before daybreak, we’re awakened by the sound of shooting. We panic. My sister starts crying and begs my mother to flee. My mother agrees. But now it’s quiet outside. I offer to accompany her to the home of a peasant who lives in a nearby village. We get dressed and go outside. It’s still dark. Dawn comes while we’re still walking. When we arrive at the village, my mother suggests that she alone approach the peasant.

“No one will identify me here,” she reassures me. She gets going. She wears a headscarf similar to those worn by the peasant women. I say goodbye, intending to return to the ghetto to hide whatever valuables we still have in our underground cache. Maybe we’ll need something and will be able to sneak back in and take it.

While I’ve been with our mother, my sister has left the ghetto with a girlfriend. They’ve walked to a different village, to a friend of the family. I’m alone at home, packing. Later on, a peasant youth shows up; I realize he’s the neighbor of the peasant to whom my mother was headed. He tells me my mother is at his house. I imagine that my mother, by accident, walked up to the wrong house. This makes me worry, because I’m not that familiar with his family; however, there’s nothing to be done about it now, no way to fix this mistake. I fill a sack with items he chooses and hope for the best.

I’m busy packing until evening. Everything I pack I stuff into our hiding place. By now it’s dark outside. I walk over to Rachelka’s house. As I approach the house, Rachelka comes out to greet me.

“I waited for you the way I waited for you one time when I was little. It was on Tisha B’av, remember? Back then, just like today, I had a feeling you’d come. I was sure of it.” We walk to the door and announce that we’re leaving.

“Go in peace, children. May God be with you,” Rachelka’s mother blesses us.

“I’ll be back soon,” Rachelka adds.

“My daughter, I know you’ll never leave us, but it’s best if you do. Save yourself. Only you stand a chance,” her mother says.

Rachelka tells me that her father, who before the war was a member of the local council, has a friend, the council secretary. He’s offered to forge an identification card for Rachelka. She’ll have a Christian name – in fact, the name of his deceased daughter, who would have been more or less Rachelka’s age. He’s volunteered to take Rachelka to a village near Demblin, more than a hundred sixty kilometers south of here, to his elderly parents who’ll take her in as their granddaughter.

But Rachelka won’t go along with the plan. She’s the only one in the family who doesn’t look Jewish and is therefore useful at home. How can she abandon her parents, brothers and sister and save only herself? She couldn’t live with herself.

Her father won’t try to flee.

He always says, “If it is God’s will to kill me, I must die with pride. I refuse to demean myself and be hunted by thugs, when in any case, there’s no possibility of escape.” He adds: “A bearded Jew in traditional garb would only provide the enemy with entertainment and I refuse to make a fool of myself for them to laugh and jeer at. I won’t shave my beard, I won’t change my clothes and I won’t betray the tradition of my ancestors.”

He doesn’t say any of this to us, of course. To my mother and me he always says we have to act on our conscience. And because he can’t do anything to help, he prefers not to burden us with his opinion.

“I’m afraid of walking straight to my death. I don’t know if there’s any possibility of escape, but I have to try,” Rachelka whispers. She leads me to a room adjoining the family’s apartment. The room has been in ruins ever since the Germans burned the town to the ground. In one corner there’s a heap of scraps and rusted tin. She moves the junk aside, revealing the entranceway to a cellar. She’s prepared the space with: water, food, blankets, candles, medicines and whatever else she thought may come in handy. She’s planning on hiding her family there when the Germans come to liquidate the ghetto, so they can survive the worst and come out when it’s safe. She thinks that, in the end, she’ll be able to convince even her father to hide down there.

We rearrange the camouflage over the opening.

Rachelka turns to me and asks, “Is it possible that God has decided to destroy the entire Jewish people? Why would He do that? We’re no worse than anyone else. I mean, take our town, for example. Most of the Jews in town, if not all of them, are God-fearing people who obey His commandments. We even have righteous people, rabbis, people who study the Torah. What have the Jews done that He’s being so cruel to us? What about the little kids and the babies? Doesn’t God in heaven – the Creator of all creations – take pity even on the tiny infants of His chosen people? What father doesn’t have mercy on his own child? How have they sinned?”

Rachelka looks up to heaven. The sky is dotted with stars. She says:

I shiver. I sit her down on my knees, enfold her in my arms and press her to my heart. She huddles close. “Herschele… I have the feeling we’ll never see one another again.”

“Don’t say that. Don’t lose hope. Despair is one of mankind’s worst failings. We have a chance to survive if we believe we do. Look – we’ve already survived so many difficulties and overcome so many dangers. We’re still here! We’ll be grateful for every additional day until the sun shines on us again.”

Clouds have covered the skies and an autumn wind has started to blow. I kiss Rachelka’s eyes and face and taste the salt of her tears. She’s trembling. I wrap my jacket around her and walk her to her door. We embrace and kiss again, then part.

On my way home, I’m disquieted by our goodbye. It’s made a deep impression on me. My soul is in an uproar and my mind is all over the place, jumping from one thought to another. I enter my house through the back. It’s dark inside. The blinds are drawn. I feel my way around the room looking for matches. A minute or two later, I find them and light a candle. The house feels abandoned. The shelves in the store are empty. Old newspapers and account books are strewn around the floor. I sit on the bed stripped of its linens. Even though I’m the one who moved everything into our hiding spot, the sight depresses me. I blow out the candle, climb to the attic, draw the ladder up behind me and try to go to sleep. My plan is to get up early, before dawn, and leave the ghetto. I don’t fall asleep for a long time, but I finally doze off.

The noise of a passing car wakes me up. It’s still dark. I look out through a crack between two shingles and see cars whose headlights illuminate the police station. Considering the time of night, the activity is suspicious. It occurs to me that I’m seeing the preparations for liquidating the ghetto.

I dress quickly and drop the ladder down. I descend quietly and go into the street. I use alleys leading southwest, to where the ghetto meets the stream. I know that at this time of year – early fall – the water is still shallow. I intend to cross it and continue on foot toward the Wilga labor camp. When the rumor about the liquidation of this district’s ghettos started spreading, the Judenrat bribed the German commander of the occupation police in the Garwolin regional council and received a promise that any Jew coming to the camp would be taken in. My plan is to stay in the camp and gather information about what’s happening in the area. Based on what I learn, I’ll be able to plan an escape from the camp with a survival strategy for the outside world. I knew I’d have to test the Christians’ attitude to Jews trying to hide out. It went without saying that after the ghettos were liquidated, any Jew caught anywhere, would be killed. Could I find a non-Jew who’d be willing to hide me?

But right now, I’m still in the ghetto, hiding in some ruins, peeking out through a chink in the wall and following a hunched shadow coming my way. Based on how the figure is making progress, I’m sure it’s some other ghetto resident looking for an escape. I’m being extra careful, so I have no intention of making myself known. I wait for the figure to pass, but on a closer look, I’m pretty sure I recognize Shmulik, a fellow who was in my grade at school. Still, to avoid taking unnecessary chances, and because I’m not one hundred percent sure it’s him, I get down behind the crack in the wall. I hear him approaching my hiding spot. He enters the same ruins. I’m lying down, not moving a muscle, trying not to breathe. My heart is beating fast. I squint in his direction until I positively identify him. It is, without a doubt, Shmulik. He still hasn’t noticed me. So I don’t startle him, I whisper very softly, “Shmulik, it’s Herschel here.”

But, of course, he instinctively springs up and tries to run. In his haste, he bumps into something and falls. I whisper again, “Shmulik, keep calm. I’m coming over to help you.”

This time, my words get through to him and he stays where he is. I come closer. He sits up and tells me the ghetto is surrounded. He’s already tried twice to sneak out without success. Now he’s arrived from the very spot I was thinking of using. He saw suspicious figures there too and he stopped to follow them. That’s how he realized the ghetto was completely surrounded. Shifts of policemen and firemen are stopping any Jew trying to flee. On his first attempt he was almost captured, but the guards were stopping other escapees. Somehow, at the last second, he managed to elude the captors. On his second try, he was more careful.

“We’re trapped,” he says. “We’re too late. I don’t think we’re leaving here alive.”

Hearing him talk, I’m gripped by terror. Panic seizes me, but I’m not yet ready to accept his conclusion. I make an effort to calm him – and myself – down.

“First of all,” I say, “let’s stay calm. It’s the only way to proceed rationally. Tell me exactly where you were when you saw the guards. We’ll assess the situation, put our heads together and find a way.”

Shmulik again describes where he’s been that night. It turns out he tried to escape using the alleys in the part of the ghetto that sits at the edge of town. As it’s the shortest route, he assumed it would be the safest too. That’s why I had also intended fleeing that way. But now, knowing the ghetto is surrounded, another solution must be found. First of all, we have to consider the open spaces where the ghetto ends without any neighboring structures. In open areas, it’s easy to notice anyone trying to leave.

“Let’s cross to the Aryan side of town and turn north where the houses are on the forest’s edge. Fewer chances of being seen there,” I suggest. To do that, we have to decide where exactly we’re going to cross over. I know a location that seemed suitable and could be reached with relative ease. The problem is that the spot is close to the police station. To this Shmulik responds by saying it may actually be an advantage: the area isn’t guarded because it wouldn’t occur to the police and the Germans that anyone would be brazen enough to approach them. There’s something to what he says. He suggests we walk behind the cover of the walls.

We go from one house to the next until we reach the last one standing in front of the open field separating the ghetto from the Aryan side. We stop to examine the surroundings and listen to the sounds of the night. It seems that the Germans haven’t started gathering all the Jews yet. Other than some barking dogs, echoes and some lights shining from the police station windows, there’s nothing suspicious to see or hear. We lie down on the ground and belly-crawl over the space separating the ghetto from the Aryan side.

Now we’re outside the ghetto. We stop behind a house on the Aryan side of town. We again try to ascertain if there are guards nearby. We continue toward Nova Droga Boulevard, which leads to the Christian cemetery outside of town, within the forest. The fact of the matter is that before the war Jews didn’t stroll down this boulevard because hooligans and anti-Semites used to harass them. At the heart of the boulevard, stands an enormous statue of St. Mary. The thugs would say the area was holy and that Jews had no right to walk there. But for us, at this moment, this makes no difference. Every location is equally dangerous. This is the shortest way to the forest. We jump over the boulevard fence, hide behind the trees and carefully move in the direction of the cemetery. We walk around it and stop at its rear edge.

Shmulik and I decide to rest. We have to relieve the tension. We look for a suitable spot and find a large bush growing next to the fence. We push our way in and huddle down on the ground between the bush and the fence. The sky is growing lighter. Dawn is breaking. We can hear the first birdsong of the day and the murmur of the trees swaying in the autumn breeze. All seems calm and silence surrounds us.

After a while, we hear a suspicious rustling inside the cemetery. My friend and I stretch to look through the fence. Among the graves, we see shadowy figures moving and pressing into hiding places. We assume these are other Jews, who like us, also managed to flee the ghetto. We debate briefly, but conclude that it’s too risky to stay here anymore. There’s no way the gardeners working in the cemetery won’t discover the Jews hiding here and they’re liable to inform the Germans. We decide to leave. We say goodbye to one another and each of us goes his separate way.

[1]“ Shiva” is Hebrew for “seven,” and refers to the seven-day mourning period observed for first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, children and spouses).
[2]The literal translation of Torah is “teaching.” The word may refer specifically to the first five books of the Hebrew bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy), or it may be used more generally to refer to all of Jewish tradition.
[3]The Talmud (in Tractate Sanhedrin 97b and Tractate Sukkah 45b) speaks of thirty-six righteous people who greet the divine presence. This notion was developed by Hassidic and other strains of Judaism into a belief that there always exist thirty-six righteous people whose role is to justify the existence of humankind in the eyes of God. In the tradition, their identities are unknown to one another and they never reveal themselves; hence their appellation of nistarim, literally “the hidden ones.”
[4]A carnival-like holiday occurring in late winter or early spring, commemorating the salvation of the Jewish people in Persia. The story is told in the biblical book of Esther. The consumption of alcohol on this day is tolerated in all circles, and even strongly encouraged in some. Merry-making is enhanced by wearing costumes, having festive meals, exchanging gifts among friends and neighbors, and providing food and/or money to the poor.
[5]A kapote is a long man’s coat of medieval origin worn especially by Hassidic Jews.
[6]During the reading of Esther, the tradition is to blot out the name of the wicked Haman who had decreed the destruction of all the Jews in the Persian Empire. Children are equipped with noisemakers they use every time Haman’s name is read out.
[7]Literally “scroll.” The book of Esther is read from a hand-written parchment scroll rather than a printed book.
[8]The SS (German: Schutzstaffel, German pronunciation ʃʊtsˌʃtafəl, “protection squadron” or “defense corps”; also with stylized “Armanen” sig runes) was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (NSDAP). It began in 1923 as a small, permanent guard unit known as the “Saal-Schutz” (Hall-Protection) made up of NSDAP volunteers to provide security for Nazi Party meetings in Munich. Later, in 1925, Heinrich Himmler joined the unit, which had by then been reformed and renamed the “Schutz-Staffel.” Under Himmler’s leadership (1929–45), it grew from a small paramilitary formation to one of the largest and most powerful organizations in the Third Reich. Built upon the Nazi ideology, the SS under Himmler’s command was responsible for many crimes against humanity during World War II (1939–45). The SS, along with the Nazi Party, was declared a criminal organization by the International Military Tribunal and banned in Germany after 1945.
[9]“Hatikvah,” literally “the hope,” is the Israeli national anthem. It was adopted as the anthem of the Zionist movement already in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland.