Chapter 6

Shmulik decided to go east to a village he knew, but I headed to the labor camp in Wilga. I continued going north for another three kilometers or so, then turned west to take advantage of the forest cover. I ended up taking a ninety-degree detour of fifty kilometers from our town to reach the main road leading to the camp.

From time to time, I stop next to a tree, listen to the forest sounds and try to decide if any noise is suspicious. Despite my caution, the forester, armed with a hunting rifle, appears behind me as if out of nowhere. He orders me to walk ahead of him. I think, so I’m trapped after all. My body is seized by alternating hot and cold waves. I try to talk to him, but he yells at me to shut up. What should I do? Flee? It’s hopeless. I can’t see what he’s doing behind my back, so I can’t take advantage of a moment of inattention on his part. What does he intend to do with me? Bring me back to the ghetto? But he’s taking me the other way. Maybe he plans to kill me inside the deepest part of the forest? Should I try to attack him? How can I overpower him? He’s so much bigger and stronger looking. I have no choice. I just have to stay composed and wait for the chance to save my skin.

I continue walking. Then we get to a spot where the path takes a sharp turn. Past the turn, I see a large group of Jews sitting on the ground. Two armed Polish policemen guard them. The forester tells me to sit with the group, my back to the policemen like everyone else. I recognize the Poles: they were from my town and used to come to my family for their monthly food ration in exchange for turning a blind eye to our business dealings in the ghetto.

I mustn’t miss this opportunity. I have to act quickly and try to tempt them with something. So before I sit down, I identify myself, even though I’m sure they recognize me, and ask for permission to approach.

“I have an interesting proposition for you, one you won’t regret,” I say. They hesitate, consult one another and agree to listen. I try to focus, desperately looking for a way to begin. One thing is clear: there’s no point in appealing to their conscience or relying on our previous acquaintance to convince them to let me go. They’re too afraid. No, I have to use the tried and tested method, which almost always works. I have to offer them to release all of us in exchange for payment.

“Listen to me and consider carefully what I have to say,” I start. “This time you have a chance – maybe your last chance – to earn a sizeable sum. Because after the Jews are expelled from the ghetto you won’t have another opportunity. You used to complain that the salaries Polish policemen get from the German administration doesn’t cover your needs or allow you to live decently.” I’m pressing on this, a sore point. “So, do yourselves a favor and don’t miss this chance. Besides, you’ll also be doing the right thing. Thanks to you, a group of Jews will escape. You should start thinking about the future. One day this war will be over and you will be rewarded. In the meantime, though, till the war ends, you have to make a living somehow…”

I don’t know what did the trick: the sum I mentioned or the notion that they would be held accountable for their actions after the war. They start to justify their actions to me by saying they had no choice.

“We’d let you go for sure, even without payment. But there’s a problem here: the other Jews sitting here are liable to tell the Germans who released you.”

I have an answer to this, “I know you’re limited in what you can do and that you’ve always tried to do your best to help. I’ll make sure everyone here appreciates that. If you let everyone go, they’ll only say good things about you. The risk you assume will be worth it, no matter how you look at it.”

“Either way,” they say, “we have to talk with the forester first. He, too, has to agree.”

“Of course,” I answer. I suggest that in the meantime, until the forester returns, I start gathering up money. “Besides, I trust you’ll come to an understanding with him and be able to persuade him. I have no doubt he’ll agree and that we can all get out of here none the worse for wear.”

When the forester reappears, I repeat my spiel. But now the policemen are second-guessing themselves and I’m afraid they’re going to backtrack. Finally, however, in exchange for a large sum for the policemen and a tidy gift to the forester, we’re all let go. Now the whole group sets off for the Wilga labor camp.

En route, more Jews who’d fled the ghetto joined us. By now there were quite a few of us – men, women and children – and we kept stopping to wait for those who had to rest, especially the children. The truth was that it made no sense for women and children to go to Wilga, but no one had a better idea. In such situations, you just have to follow your gut and your best understanding of reality. Our progress was extremely slow. Every once in a while someone would suggest we stop, and since we had no reason to hurry, we would wait.

Later on we were joined by a man who had become trapped in the ghetto, but managed to escape the mass of people being herded from the ghetto to the train station. He said that the Germans, helped by policemen, firemen, woodsmen and other Polish collaborators, had gathered up some three hundred of the one thousand two hundred people who were in the ghetto before its liquidation. The Jewish population of Łaskarzew before the war had been three thousand. Many had fled to the surrounding forests, many had been murdered by the Nazis, and many had died in the ghetto of starvation, disease and exposure. It seemed that in the last couple of days, since learning of the liquidations of ghettos in our district, nine hundred Jews had managed to flee. Those left in the ghetto were the sick, the old and the residents who had decided not to try to flee. The man further said that several wagons were brought to the spot where the Germans had gathered the Jews. The old and sick, who had managed to make it there, were ordered to get into these wagons. When it emerged that there wasn’t enough room for all of them, the Germans ordered several of the Jews to throw the rest of the elderly and the ill one on top of another. The Germans beat everyone with their rifle butts, making it impossible for anyone to sit up in the wagons. Those too sick to walk and those trying to flee were shot on the spot.

We reached the labor camp at Wilga around nightfall. The men were allowed to enter, but the women and children were left outside the fence. We were brought into a large bunkhouse and told to grab a bunk. Both sides of the bunkhouse were lined with triple-decker wooden bunks. The laborers had not yet returned from their day of work, so we were free to bed down on any top bunk we wanted. At the head of the bunk I chose there was a small window that let in some natural light. The window couldn’t be opened – it was just a piece of glass in a wooden frame nailed to the bunkhouse boards. Such windows were located above several of the top-most bunks.

A short while later I heard loud noises outside. I got up to investigate. The yard was now filled with men returning from their forced labor. The sight of them was awful; at best, the men were depressing to look at, and at worst, shocking. Their clothes were threadbare, torn, patched together. As the result of fatigue, cold and hunger, many had lost any semblance of humanity. Their behavior was robotic. They seemed bereft of their senses. They walked, worked and stood in line for food. Many had trouble with their balance and constantly swayed on their feet. Their eyes were glazed, their faces expressionless. When spoken to, they neither heard you nor understood you. At this stage, many would die from the beatings administered by the overseers, because they were incapable of understanding what anybody wanted of them or what they were supposed to be doing. This would infuriate the Poles in charge, who were almost all anti-Semitic to start with; the dregs of mankind, the bottom of the criminal barrel. They beat the Jews with wooden clubs. They’d break limbs and fracture skulls. Their victims either died on the spot, or lingered in agony.

The day started at four in the morning, when it was still dark outside. We were lined up and made to wait two hours for a bowl of soup consisting of scummy water and an occasional bit of potato if you were lucky. Then we were given a slice of bread baked entirely of bran. It looked like clay and was as wet on the inside as raw dough. This meal was supposed to last the whole day. We then left for work and walked several kilometers to the marshlands. Draining the marshes was backbreaking work. We wallowed in the mud all day long, usually wet to the skin, as this was the fall season and it rained a lot. The work day ended at nightfall and we, dragging our feet from exhaustion, were brought back to camp by armed guards. When we finally got to the camp, we’d be made to wait another two hours for supper – some heated water they called “soup.”

I skipped my soup and entered the bunkhouse, because I was too tired to stand up. I lay down on my bunk and fell asleep without removing my muddy shoes or shedding my sodden clothes. I was too afraid they’d be stolen. I also had nothing to use as a blanket. I woke up shortly thereafter, shivering with cold. My teeth chattered so badly that I was unable to fall asleep again. I was still awake when it was time to go to work the next day. The same scenario played itself out day after day for the whole week.

On Sunday, the Christian day of rest, they left us in the camp. I got up early and went outside where I started to exercise, leap up and down, rub my hands together and pummel my body – all in an attempt to get some warmth into me. As this is going on, one of the guards sees me and tells me to follow him. He grabs someone else on the way and takes both of us to a tool shed. He gives each of us a spade and walks us over to the rear of the shed where a dead man is lying on the ground. He seems to have died from a beating, because his face and beard are covered with blood and mud. We don’t recognize him. The guard tells us to take the body outside the camp, into the forest and bury him there. We pick him up and carry him on our shoulders. The guard follows us. He finally points to a spot and tells us to start digging.

He orders us to check the man’s pockets for valuables. Other than a copy of the Hebrew Bible in a silver cover, the pockets are empty. That instant I recognize the very copy of the Hebrew Bible I gave my teacher as a gift. A shiver runs down my back. I flip the cover open and find the dedication I wrote in my own hand. At that moment, the guard snatches the book away from me. I can tell he’s about to pocket it. I ask him to give the Bible back to me.

“This,” I say to him, “is how we’re going to honor the last wishes of the dead man. We’re going to bury him with the thing that was dearest to him, the thing he wouldn’t part with to his very last day.”

The guard tears the silver cover off, and hands the book back to me.

This horrifying incident fate visits on me makes me think of the time I had spent with my teacher Yehiel and his family. While I’m digging, I also remember the occasions and people that meant so much to me.

Like my neighbor Zelda, who wins Mendele the Clockmaker and the puppy who wins my father, Asher Waldman. Zelda, a woman who’d never known poverty or material hardship has only recently been widowed yet has already managed to remarry, this time to the prosperous Mendele. “And your puppy is just like Zelda: see what luck it has,” says Leah to my father. Leah is Yehiel’s mother-in-law. She sighs and watches me fatten our puppy with egg noodles floating in chicken soup. The puppy is full and has no interest in finishing the portion I set aside for him. But clever little me, has set up a mirror behind the puppy’s bowl. The puppy is now confused by the sight of another dog approaching his bowl. He gets angry, barks, and lunges for the food. Voila! I’ve tempted him into finishing off the rest.

The puppy is the latest addition to the household. Father has brought him home as break-ins are on the rise. The puppy spends the night in the shop, so he can bark and send would-be thieves running. He’s the cutest puppy in the world. His dark brown fur gleams. A white streak starting at the chin runs down his neck and expands to cover his whole chest. He’s always happy to play with me. When I enter the house, he runs to greet me, jumps for joy, wags his tail, rolls around on the rug with me, licks my hands, kisses my face, comes with me wherever I go and is sad when I leave him at home. How can you not love him?

Leah continues talking to my father. Now she asks, “While we’re on the topic of luck, perhaps you, my dear friend, can answer this. Some say that luck gives everyone seven good years. Now, are they necessarily consecutive or may they be broken up? Perhaps they occur over separate days during one’s lifetime? Is it possible that the One above forgets some people? And, if so, how would one remind Him? I’m an old woman, and I cannot remember any good days, never mind good years. I’m afraid He’s too late for me. But I haven’t come to talk about myself. You know me and my irritable husband, who spends the entire week away from home in villages near and far, with a dry hunk of bread and no hot meals, looking for a calf to slaughter? The calf refuses to part from its cow mother. And when they are forcibly separated, he has to drag the calf over long distances. He carries it some of the way, but he gets tired. Then he must prod the calf to walk on its own steam, step by tiny step. When he finally comes back home, his resentment comes spilling out all over me. After he slaughters the calf, it’s my turn to debase myself: I take his cuts of meat and walk from house to house to show them and persuade customers to buy as long as the meat is still fresh. I have to suffer all the homemakers’ whims. You can’t please everyone! It’s impossible to give everyone the choicest cut from one single calf. What am I supposed to do with the rest? Do I keep silent or do I explain? I wonder if such torture exists, even in hell. Oh Master of the universe – if for my many sins I should, God forbid, be sentenced to hell, don’t punish me by making me sell meat door-to-door.”

“As you know, my dear friend,” she continues, “other than my daughter Rivkale, may she live long and be well, all my other children died young. But for all my pain, God gave me a daughter who is a balm to my soul. Besides her beauty, knock on wood, God blessed her with a pure spirit and a kind, caring soul. Since she was a baby, she has lifted my spirits and been my closest friend. It’s been close to twenty years since she got married and left home and I still miss her. I go to her at least once a week, and pour my heart out to her, cleansing all the bitterness that builds up in me. She’s lucky that her husband – unlike her father – is also a wonderful person. He’s mild and gentle and so are my four grandchildren. You’ll never hear a rude word or an insult in that house. Everyone is quiet, calm and peaceful.”

“Now, if God had only also seen fit to provide them with a livelihood as well, their joy would be complete.” Leah is finally getting to the point. “Not that my daughter, God forbid, complains. They eat stale bread and a dessert of unsweetened tea. All week long, they cook potatoes, just as God made them, nothing else. But despite it all, my daughter claims to be happy. She’s only sorry that her children envy other kids. Because children are children and have a hard time accepting God’s decree. And why am I telling you all of this? Because the Almighty put an idea in my son-in-law’s head; with his help, and God’s help, he may be able to ease the family’s suffering. But my son-in-law is a humble man and doesn’t know how to present his idea. Now, because I’ve done most everything else in life, I assumed the job of advertising for him - though no advertising is, strictly speaking, necessary. It’s no secret that my son-in-law is as full of good deeds and learning as a pomegranate is of seeds. He can read the fine print and he’s the most honest and devoted person you can hope to find. If you’d be kind enough to allow your son to learn Torah with him, you’ll generate multiple blessings – for yourself, your son, my son-in-law and his family. He has no intention of becoming a teacher to large groups. He only wants two boys – your son and the son of Yankele, the cloth merchant.” She ends her speech and stares at my father.

Leah had not exaggerated her descriptions of her son-in-law Yehiel and his family. He became not only my teacher, but also my friend. What a man –a Torah scholar full of general knowledge, like a bottomless well! He possessed a kind heart and a quick, incisive mind. His home was full of love and mutual respect. He was mild and gentle even in the most difficult situations, making it his business to ease the pain he saw around him.

The time I spent in the company of my teacher and friend provided me with wonderful, bitter-sweet memories that I cherish to this day. I remember the way Yehiel seemed to me on the first day I studied with him. I showed up at his house and found him sitting next to the table, an open book before him. He was a handsome man of forty or so, with a dark beard and a calm, pleasant disposition. He looked up and said: “Welcome!” He invited me to take a seat at the table. He made a deep impression on me from the very beginning. He earned my trust from our very first conversation. He made it very clear he was truly interested in my answers.

He asked, “What have you learned? What would you like to learn?”

He listened to me patiently, considered what I said and made some suggestions. He talked to me about the order of learning and was sensitive to my opinions in a way no other teacher had ever been, a way I hadn’t known existed until that day. If it occurred to me to study something new or different, he always agreed. I also started paying greater attention to my studies than ever before. I would relearn what we studied even memorize the material, because I wanted to please him. He was very religious without being a fanatic. He taught me Torah, wisdom and knowledge with love and patience. I could approach him with any question and ask him whatever occurred to me. He never got angry, he never put me down. I had no hesitation asking him about contradictions between the Torah text and the science I was learning at school. He would answer patiently and try to explain the conflicts.

Sometimes he would give me philosophical answers. “Listen, my boy, the deeds of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, are eternal and limitless and cannot be grasped by the human mind. A question resolved by the scholars of today is liable to create a contradiction or a new unknown tomorrow. Then, after a while, other scholars come on the scene and disprove the previous theory. Nothing is absolute. These are merely hypotheses: don’t view them as the final truth. One day you’ll realize that there are no contradictions in the universe because there can’t be any. So it’s best not to dispute God’s work. You’re still young and have a long future ahead of you. You’ll see that God’s Torah is the Torah of truth and it cannot be undermined.”

Before long, we became friends despite our age difference. When his cup of bitterness spilled over and he was no longer capable of keeping his troubles to himself, he’d open up to me. He must have felt my sincere identification with his pain and this made it easier for him to talk.

He barely eked out a living for his family. The Jewish community put him in charge of operating the ritual bath, but this was not a salaried position. He would make a pittance from the tips given him by the men coming to immerse themselves on Friday in honor of the Holy Sabbath. Unfortunately the tips mostly went to pay for the fuel used to heat the water.

He and his family had to make do with stale bread. They would leave it out for a few days on purpose, believing that stale bread was more filling than fresh. Lunch consisted of potatoes, generally without anything else. Before the Sabbath, his mother-in-law Leah – the wife of Mendele the butcher – would bring the family leftover internal organs. When Yehiel happened to have a coin around, he’d buy a salted fish, dip it in flour, and fry it up with a drop of oil. Then he would offer his students a plate, because the family considered this a delicacy and they wanted us to enjoy its taste too. We were happy to say yes and participate in the meal. I don’t remember ever refusing their invitation, for two reasons. First, because the fried fish really was good and nobody at our house ever made anything like it. But the main reason for accepting the invitation was to foster a sense of mutuality and reciprocity. We didn’t want them to refuse or feel ashamed of accepting the seasonal fruit we brought them from home.

The family’s suffering was greatest in winter. My teacher, his wife and their children would come home freezing cold. They had no warm clothing, were malnourished and were constantly getting sick.

The houses in town had no running water. People would bring water indoors from wells or the stream that flowed at the end of the street. One day in winter, the door opened. Yehiel, covered in snow, stood in the doorway holding two pails of water in his frozen hand. He fell forwards, the buckets tipped and water spilled all over the floor, where my teacher lay unconscious. We barely managed to drag him to his bed. When he finally came to, he could no longer hide his worry. An animal howl escaped his throat and he started to sob like a little child. As the saying goes, the rope breaks when it’s frayed.

One time, his wife contracted pneumonia. She took to bed, but did not mend. During her illness, my teacher sat by her bed, reading her stories about the Hassidim of old and of miracles that happened to people, who in their darkest hour remained steadfast in their belief in the Master of the Universe. He spoke softly and kindly to her and did everything to lift her spirits, but her condition only worsened. One day, while her fever was raging, she turned to him.

With a perfectly clear mind, she tells her husband, “Apparently, it is God’s will that I part from you, for now, my darling. Don’t cry, don’t feel sad. I’ll wait patiently for you to complete your journey at a ripe old age. If I have earned the right, I will advocate for our children before the Almighty. We will see one another again, when the time comes, in a world that is all good, the world of all eternity…”

My teacher tries to control his raging emotions to give his wife cheer, but he’s choking back tears.

He finally collects himself and says, “My beloved, devoted wife. We’ve shared too few days of joy and too many days of sorrow. Such was our lot. You never complained, you never asked for a thing. Even the bracelet my mother gave you as your engagement present we sold shortly after the wedding. I’ve brought you nothing, nothing pretty for the house, no piece of jewelry for you. You never dreamed of pearls or rubies, but you never had just ordinary contentment either. God knows how I dreamed of being able to surprise you with something that would gladden your heart, but I failed. There were always more important things. I don’t know what value my deeds have in the eyes of God, but if I have performed any commandments or done any good deeds, I share them equally with you. All the commandments I have performed to date and will continue to perform until my last day on earth – I plead with the Blessed One that He will register them as our shared assets in the world to come, the world of truth. This is the only present I have to give you and it too is late in coming. But it is given to you wholeheartedly, forever and ever. It is a small comfort to me and our children, in the face of the separation fate is forcing on us.”

She takes his hand in hers and brings it to her pale lips. She kisses it gently, and a radiant joy shines from her eyes.

Her voice grows stronger and her words are as clear as a bell, “My darling, beloved husband. Your words were always like pearls and always more precious to me than rubies. I bedecked myself in them on every happy occasion and let them light up every holiday. This gift of yours is dearer than any other, because the same fate we shared in this world will continue to bind us even more strongly in the world to come.”

A few days later, the wife of my teacher and friend passed away. In death as in life, she went quietly, without complaint and returned her soul to her Maker with perfect grace.

After the days of mourning, I continue learning with my teacher as before. Our friendship grows. At the same time, I start attending meetings of the Zionist movement. The notion of the people returning to Zion entices me. I feel the need to share this with my teacher and tell him of my feelings and dreams. I tell him about my decision; that, one day, when I’m of age, I will ascend to Zion [1]. He doesn’t disagree. On the contrary, he thinks it is quite rational.

“One can wait for the Messiah,” he says, “also in the land of Israel [2]. And in the meantime, you can spare yourself the suffering and humiliation that is our lot in the diaspora.”

Despite his efforts to behave normally, it seems to me that since his wife’s death his spirit had sunk low. It occurs to me to bring him a present and express my appreciation for all he’s done for me. Perhaps that will bring him some solace. I had a Hebrew Bible in a silver binding, the Western Wall embossed on the front cover and the Tomb of Rachel on the back. It had been a present from my maternal grandfather on one of his visits. I added a brief dedication: “For my teacher – the keenest and dearest of men.”

When he received my gift and read the dedication, he was unable to speak. He stood up and embraced me, then went into the other room. A few minutes later he was back. His eyes were red and tears still pooled in them. He never let that copy of the Torah out of his hands again.

We finish digging the grave and lower my teacher into it. I cradle his head with a sense of tenderness and infinite love and then lower it on top of the open Bible. Full of grief and pain, we fill in the grave.

I felt my heart weeping within. It seemed as if the universe was grieving with me, for a sudden storm had blown in black clouds that now covered the skies. The forest darkened at once and seemed clothed in menacing mourning. Lightning lit up the sky, as if the eternal light was sanctifying my teacher’s holy soul. Thunder rippled through the clouds, sending a deluge of tears to earth. These mixed with my own tears, soaking me to the skin. The wind howled and bent the treetops over the fresh grave as I, with anguish, parted from my beloved teacher and friend.

The rain continued to pound on me all the way back to the camp. I entered the bunkhouse and lay down in my bunk without paying any attention to the human tumult around me. I had no desire to stand up and interact with my surroundings. I just lay there for several hours, constantly thinking about my teacher.

In the early afternoon, hunger got the better of me. I’d been late and had not received my portion of bread and soup that morning. Stomach cramps forced me off my bunk in search of food. I had a few packets of cigarettes. I traded one for a slice of bread to silence my rumbling belly.

The bunkhouse was a beehive of intense activity. Cobblers and tailors patched and fixed shoes and clothing in exchange for cash, goods or a slice of bread. Some bought clothing and altered, laundered and ironed it to sell to non-Jews who’d come to the camp fence to buy or trade for food. Some exchanged new for old, warmer clothing. I too traded my clothing for old warm, cotton-padded items. I also exchanged my shoes for a sturdier pair, better suited to walking and standing in mud. Once back in camp, I examined the items I’d acquired more carefully; I realized they looked too good. It would be wise to give them to the tailor to patch as it was better if they looked worn and old, or I would risk an overseer stripping me naked in the camp or thugs robbing me outside. I also bought a cornered hat, similar to those worn by Polish soldiers. The peasants in the vicinity wore such caps too. I wanted to blend in and not be identified as a Jew from a distance in case I decided to flee the camp. I knew that anyone looking at me closely would immediately see me for what I was, because most Poles were blond and I was dark and Jewish looking. But even so, every unconsidered detail could tip the scales of fortune with life hanging in the balance.

A Polish autumn – not to mention winter, which was fast approaching – cannot be survived without warm clothing, so my preparations kept me busy until evening. When I lay down on my plank that night, I fell asleep immediately and slept straight through in my new-old and most importantly, warm and dry clothes. That was the first night the cold didn’t bother me and I woke up ready for a new day of work.

One tragedy followed another. When we came back to camp that evening, we heard that all the women and children who’d stayed in the forest near the camp had been shot or otherwise brutally murdered. I can’t begin to describe the horrors the Germans inflicted on them. The men taken from the camp to bury the bodies saw the most awful sights.

Shortly afterwards, someone told me there was a Christian messenger next to the fence looking for Jews from my town. I approached him. The messenger quickly pushed a dozen or so notes into my hand and took off running. I didn’t have a chance to ask him any questions before he disappeared from view. The notes were meant for men from our town and were sent by relatives in the forest asking for help because they were left with nothing. Robbers visited them nightly, stealing all their possessions and stripping them of their warm clothing. The thugs demanded money and valuables. When these were gone, they beat their victims senselessly and demanded to know where they’d hidden their loot, refusing to believe it was all gone.

Among the notes there was one addressed to me from my mother. She wrote that the peasant she’d stayed with had stolen everything from her and kicked her out of his house. Now she’s in the forest with everyone else, with no means of support, wearing only a thin dress and no shoes on her feet. Her coat and kerchief were stolen in the forest. She can’t explain where she is. I have to talk to the messenger and he’ll lead me to her. Although I saw the messenger leave, I ran back to the fence to see if he remembered he was supposed to explain how I could find my mother’s hiding place in the forest. But no one was there. How was I supposed to find a person in the dozens of square kilometers of forest in the vicinity? Before I distributed the rest of the notes, I read them and tried to find a clue to the sender’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, I discovered no concrete information, not a sliver of an idea on how to find the right place. Most of the notes relied on the messenger taking us there, or at least providing an explanation on how to find them. I turned to find the other men and distributed the notes. I also asked them if they had any information to share, but nobody knew anything about where our relatives might be hiding.

I tried to convince several of the men to escape from the camp with me, but success eluded me in this endeavor too. After the shock that we inmates had received when we first found out about the murder of all the women and children that morning, fear had everyone in its grip. I needed help. I was hoping to find at least one other man who’d be willing to join me. That evening, I made a final attempt to recruit a partner, to no avail. It depressed me, even though I knew it wouldn’t stop my escape. I had risked my life so often and had survived. Now my mother was in trouble, maybe in real danger, and was waiting for me to help her. How could I disappoint her? I knew myself, and knew I couldn’t live with the knowledge that I’d let something stop me from coming to her side. I knew I had to weigh my next move well, and proceed with caution and deliberation. I made a firm decision: if I could not find anyone to join my escape, I would do it alone. I decided to act without delay in my attempt to save my mother.

That night I stayed awake for hours. All sorts of escape plans and ideas for locating my mother hatched in my brain. Every plan had its pros and cons. I thought them through systematically and finally concluded that it was best to try to sneak into the forest during the march from the labor camp to the work site. It was the most feasible plan with the best chance of succeeding. We had no particular order of walking to work and back. We milled about like a herd of sheep. The overseers consistently failed to get us to line up. No threats, punishments or beatings helped. None of them had any power to cow us anymore. The inmates were either incapable of following directions, or couldn’t grasp what was being asked of them. Many had lost touch with reality because of malnutrition. So the overseers had given up trying.

This disorganized walk was supposed to make it easier for me to break away from the group and hide in the forest. Tall pines grew close to the road, their tops touching. But closer to the ground, the trunks were bare and branchless. There was no undergrowth between the trees either. In other words, for most of the way I saw no place suitable for hiding; however, there was a very short stretch where young pine saplings had been planted to form a new grove. Their lower branches hadn’t dried up yet and were growing close together, creating a thicket of branches starting a few inches above the ground. It seemed like the only suitable place to hide.

Afraid of missing this last chance, I left the group and hastily entered the woods without noticing that one of the overseers was following me. I had not yet managed to settle into a hiding spot before I was pummeled all over with a stick. The weight of the blows made me fall. I got up, but was immediately felled again. At a certain point the baton wielded by the overseer thwacked against one of the trees and broke. I used the pause to run back to the group, using it to cover my presence. I was bruised all over, but seemed not to have any broken bones. From one hour to the next, the pains became more intense and it was difficult to make it through the shift. Every motion or sudden twist multiplied the pain a hundredfold. Nonetheless, I didn’t despair. The opposite happened: my decision to flee was redoubled, come what may.

When we returned to camp that evening, again I skipped the line for the heated water they were calling soup. Instead, I walked the perimeter fence, looking for a spot or a weak link that could help me plan and execute my flight. While I was walking around considering the details of my escape and being careful not to be seen by the guards, I noticed a small ditch. Formed by the rain falling on the bare ground, it went under the fence, but wasn’t deep enough to crawl through. The barbed wire that had been jammed into the ground scraped the bottom of the ditch. I waited for dark. I came back to the spot and using my shoe, tried alternately to push and pull on the wire to see if it was possible to lift it without having to do any digging. I tried several times with no success. I realized the wires were buried deep in the ground and I would have to come up with tools to deepen the trench. I had traded two packs of cigarettes that I still had from our store, for two slices of bread. I ate one and kept the other as food for the journey. The empty tin can that served as my soup bowl was traded in for a tin plate, which I turned into a trowel. Now that everything was ready I sat down on the floor next to the wall on the far side of the bunkhouse and waited for everyone to fall asleep. I didn’t want to climb into my bunk and wait up there because I was worried that I, too, would fall asleep and miss my opportunity to escape.

Within a short time, all talk stopped. The bunkhouse filled with sounds of snoring, groaning and coughing. I waited another half hour or so to be sure everyone was fast asleep and only then did I climb up to my bunk. The beating I sustained that morning during my failed escape had caused much swelling. Lying down was agony. I gritted my teeth and tried to stay calm. My plan was to try to remove the pane of glass above my head while prone, lowering myself through the opening at the far end of the bunkhouse. I couldn’t use the door because it faced the gate and the guards were liable to see me. I made several attempts to loosen the pane, but failed. It had been installed from the outside and couldn’t be budged from indoors. Afraid that the glass would break and make noise, I abandoned the idea.

I crawled off my plank and went underneath the bottom bunk. I lay down on the floor and started cutting the plywood wall. By twisting my penknife, I was able to make a hole in the thin board. The hole gave me a purchase point to start cutting the width of the board. The boards were attached horizontally to the plank supporting the bunk, so it was enough to cut the board at the height of the bunk for the lower part to come loose. It wasn’t stuck very deep in the ground, but every careless motion that rubbed one of my bruises caused me sharp, sudden pains. I panicked: I thought I’d been discovered and stabbed with a dagger. It was only after a minute that I realized that the pain resulted from irritation to the wounds incurred earlier that day. I continued working, trying all the while to ignore the discomfort, until I’d cut four boards and made an opening. I crawled outdoors. I put the boards back in place to hide the opening, shoving them into the ground so they wouldn’t fall over.

I was now between the bunkhouse and the fence, hidden from the guards at the camp gate. I crawled to the edge of the bunkhouse and carefully checked for activity, especially near the gate. I saw the guard, or more accurately, the glowing tip of his cigarette. To reach the trench I had to pass through some seven or eight meters of open space between the gate and the rear of the second bunkhouse, which was supposed to hide me from his sight. I lay there unmoving for a long time, concentrating on the guard. It was very dark, the clouds covering the moon and stars. I saw no activity. So I decided to press on. I started crawling towards the other bunkhouse. So far everything was going smoothly. By then I’d reached the trench and I started digging with the tin plate I had brought.

Fortunately, the soil was sandy loam and thanks to the rains, quite soft. The digging was fairly easy, but I had to make sure not to make any noise and this slowed me down. When I was right against the fence, I used my hands. I didn’t want the plate I was using to bang against the barbed wire and alert the guard. I had no watch; I was finding it impossible to estimate how much time had passed. I was almost done digging when I noticed the lights in the kitchen going on. This meant it was three or four in the morning. The soup was distributed at six, before we left the camp for work. I couldn’t tarry now. Some men would get up early to be the first in line for food and then I would almost certainly be seen. I was afraid someone would inform on me, or that I’d attract curious spectators. I decided to try to crawl through on my back. But the ditch was still not deep enough and the barbed wire caught on my clothing. After frantic efforts to disentangle myself, I had no choice but to crawl back into the camp area. I continued to dig and deepen the trench. The light in the kitchen windows raised the level of tension and I found it very tough to control my stress. I knew I had to hurry and finish before people got up, but at the same time I had to exercise care and work cautiously so as not to make any noise. After a while, I tried crawling through again, but again I got tangled in the barbed wire. This time, instead of retreating, I somehow pushed myself out the other side.

I had not yet managed to stand up when I heard the dogs barking. I worried that these were guard dogs. I panicked and started running. In hindsight, I realized the dogs must have been barking at the kitchen staff because they didn’t chase me, but the fear made me run several kilometers into the forest.

I knew that a village populated by Germans was located on the camp’s north side. Worried about running into a resident, I ran southward the whole time, until my strength gave out and I could barely breathe. Only then, when I was no longer capable of moving, did I stop behind a bush to suck in air and listen for pursuers. Noticing nothing unusual, I continued walking until I got to a very overgrown part of the forest.

The spot seemed like a good place to rest and allow my adrenalin to ebb. My belly growled with hunger. It occurred to me that I hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning. I took the second slice of bread out of my pocket. I broke it in half. I ate one piece and put the other one away and got ready to get up to walk, wanting to put as much distance between me and the camp as possible. Fatigue overcame me. I felt an unbearable desire to sleep for a short while. I was afraid of lying down on the wet ground and becoming cold. I forced myself to get up, and with the last of my strength, I gathered a heap of branches together. I crawled into the pile, so that some of the branches were underneath me and some above. I lay among a group of bushes growing wild. Although it seemed that I was well hidden and the chance of someone happening by was slight, I took these precautions just to be on the safe side.

Suddenly, all the parts of my body that had been beaten came awake. Lying within the branches somehow intensified the pain, and I was unable to lie still. I turned from side to side, but finally exhaustion overcame the pain and I fell asleep.

The sun was about to set when I woke up. I crawled out of my improvised bed. I realized that I felt great. The tension was gone, my head was clear, and I was finally calm. Sleep had almost miraculously wiped away the stress of the last few days, especially that of last night. I ate the last piece of bread and started thinking of the rest of my journey. After some consideration, I decided that, given that the camp was northwest of my town and that I had been heading south the whole time, it didn’t really matter where I was because I still had to go east. I hoped that when I got to a village, I’d meet someone who’d be able to direct me back to my hometown.

As I said before, I had no idea how to start looking for my mother. All I knew was that she was somewhere in a forest. I didn’t even know which forest. It seemed to make sense to try to get back to my town before doing anything else. From there, I would continue to the village where I had left her. It was reasonable to assume she was in the forest near there. I’d ask people in and near the village if they’d seen or heard of Jews hiding nearby. If I was unable to elicit any information, I would simply start combing the forest for her. I convinced myself that this was a way to find her. It’s a good thing she’s not alone, I thought, because finding a single person in the forest was almost impossible. But because she was hiding out with other Jews – as was clear from the notes the messenger brought to the labor camp – it would be easier to track her down. I was convinced I’d find her. If my mother had come across a group of Jews when she was cast out of the village, I expected to be able to do so as well.

I turned my back on the setting sun and started walking east. I continued walking with the lighter side of the sky to my back. When the stars came out, I identified the North Star and made sure to keep it on my left at all times. After a while, a heavy cloud cover set in, hiding the North Star from sight. Now I needed a new method to keep me on track. I remembered learning in school that most rain in Poland comes from the north and because the sun’s rays warm the south side more, the bark on the trees’ north side never quite dries. A light moss grows on the trees’ north side because the moss feeds off the constant moisture. I touched several trees and established my path based on the moss growing on them.

Wandering around in the dark, I often encountered shrubbery and trees that I had to bypass, causing me to lose my sense of direction. I again had to feel the trees for moss to reorient myself. All of this was cumbersome and time-consuming, slowing my progress considerably. Then the rain started. I had nowhere to seek shelter, so I continued walking. Before long, I was thoroughly soaked and chilled to the bone.

It got worse: I hit a patch of bog. My feet start sinking and my shoes fill with mud. My feet wrestle with the mud. I’m hoping to reach a higher spot in another step or two and to put this latest complication behind me. A creeping fear overtakes me: is this bog made of quicksand? Am I going to sink and suffocate? While I have never heard of anything like it happening in our region, it may be that the locals know enough to stay away from here. But I’m unfamiliar with this place. How was I supposed to know to stay out of here?

I use a branch to feel out my next step. I shove it into the mud to test its depth and proceed with care. The rain won’t stop. It’s actually developing into a storm. A fierce wind starts to blow, bringing more heavy clouds. The forest is utterly dark. There is no visibility at all. I try to press on, but with little success. I keep hitting bushes and root masses. Finally, I stumble and fall into the ooze. Now I’m covered in it. The wind is making it hard to breathe. I get up and try to keep going, but I’m so exhausted I keep losing my balance. Every few steps, I slip and sink back into the muck. I’m leaning against a tree, both legs sliding deeper into the marsh. I feel exhausted. After a short rest, I start feeling around for a bush or something else to climb. I’m hoping to be able to drag myself out of the slime and hide from the rain. With enormous effort, I manage to climb a stunted tree. After innumerable attempts in which I slide back down, I finally heave myself high enough to grasp a branch, pull myself up, and sit down on it. I hug the branch with all my might so as not to be blown off by the fierce wind shaking the tree back and forth. Torrents of rain keep falling. The wind and the cold shake my battered body. My teeth chatter incessantly. I can’t imagine hanging onto the branch till morning. Minutes pass like days and hours like weeks.

When dawn broke, the clouds started to scatter. The wind weakened and the rain stopped. The forest grew lighter and from my perch I could see the surrounding area. I saw that off to my side the ground rose to a small hillock. I climbed out of the tree and headed that way. Within minutes, I was out of the bog. Soon I came across a spring. I removed my shoes, rinsed them off, and picked the remaining clumps of mud (most of the dirt had already been washed away by the rain) out of the folds of my clothing.

Despite my fatigue, I decided to forge ahead. I walked and walked. The forest seemed to go on forever. Any time I spotted a bright spot in the distance, I hoped that it was the edge of the forest. But drawing closer I would realize that it was nothing but a small clearing, behind which there was just more forest, all the way to the horizon.

After walking several hours, I finally sat down. I leaned against a tree, and without meaning to, fell asleep. I woke up at dusk, got up and continued walking. After several more hours of trudging along, I heard dogs barking from afar. I must have been coming to some sort of settlement. Indeed, not long afterward, I reached the forest’s end.

By now it was dark. On the horizon I saw lights flickering. Here and there were lights from far-flung farms outside the village. I headed for one of these, to skirt the village itself.

With quiet, cautious steps, I crept up behind a house and peeked in through the window to see what was happening inside. First, I had to ensure that no Germans were nearby. At night, they used to swoop into villages and kidnap teenagers to do forced labor in Germany. I also wanted to see what the farmer was like. I wanted to observe his interactions with his family members, to see if he was easily irritated or drunk. I stood off to the side of the window and from time to time peeked inside to try to get an impression of the landowner. I finally concluded that the man and his family seemed like decent people, and I was considering knocking at their door to ask for something to eat. I hadn’t eaten a thing since the previous evening and was ravenously hungry. In truth, I was hungry all the time, ever since leaving our house in the ghetto. Since then, food had been doled out in miniscule amounts and was very far from filling. So, should I go in and ask for food? Or was it better perhaps to sneak into the barn, sleep, and in the morning ask to be put to work in exchange for a meal? I decided on the latter option. I stuffed myself into a bale of hay in a corner of the barn and went to sleep.

In the morning I was awakened by the roosters. I went behind the barn and brushed off the bits of hay clinging to me. Then I waited for someone to come out of the house. Soon enough I heard a door open. Sticking my head around the corner of the barn, I saw the farmer carrying two pails toward his well. I sauntered into the yard and called out a greeting. He looked up dumbfounded. I must have been quite a sight. But he greeted me in return and asked me what I wanted. I said that I wanted to work. He immediately recognized me as a Jew, but this didn’t seem to bother him. Ever since the occupation, not a single German had come calling here. Yes, they’d come to nearby villages, but had never darkened his door. He asked me where I was from originally and where I was coming from now. I told him that ever since the Jews were expelled from my town, I’d been hiding in the forest. I didn’t want to reveal that I’d fled the labor camp, because I didn’t want him worrying that I might be pursued and discovered here. The farmer hesitated a bit, but finally brought me into the cowshed and showed me how to clean it. He showed me where to heap the manure and how to lay down new straw, and then left me to do my work.

A while later he came back, bringing a bowl of warm milk with noodles. I finished the food in record time. When he saw how greedily I ate, he went back inside and brought out a second bowl, bigger than the first. This was the first time I’d felt full since I fled the ghetto. Around noon, his wife brought me two bowls, one with potatoes and the other with buckwheat in milk. This time I was unable to finish the food, and I kept the leftovers for later. When I finished work, I washed up at the trough next to the well, and cleaned my clothing as best as I could in preparation for leaving. But then the peasants invited me to stay for their next meal. It proved to be an opportunity to ask some questions about less traveled routes to reach my town. I also found out that the ghetto was still uninhabited. Finally I thanked the couple for their generosity, bade my farewell and left.

After several hours of walking in the early evening, I saw the twinkling lights of my town in the distance. I headed for the ghetto and the alleyways I knew so well. The ghetto was empty and dark, without a living soul around. All had disappeared. Pages that the marauders had ripped from holy books, rustled in the wind. A deathly silence prevailed. There was no more life here, neither the weeping of the sick, nor the laughter of the children. All human voices had been stilled. The only sounds were the raucous creaking of doors and windows swinging with every gust of wind. The desolation and destruction were complete.

I turn toward Rachelka’s house, or rather the cellar where her family was supposed to have hidden. The opening is uncovered. It’s dark inside. My heart is beating faster. Did the Nazis discover their hiding place? Did they leave before the deportation? Or did they manage to remain in hiding and leave later? How can I find out? I climb down into the cellar and light a match. On the opposite wall, large letters written in chalk spell out: “We’re safe.” My knees buckle. I sit down on the stairs, breathe deeply and feel the relief seeping into my body. I light another match and see a candle stub stuck in a bottle next to the far wall. I light the candle, pick up a chunk of plaster, and write my name under the message almost certainly left behind by Rachelka. My spirits restored, I climb out of the cellar. A spark of hope flutters in my heart that one day we shall meet again. Maybe we’ll live to see the day when liberty and freedom are declared for us and our persecuted people.

From there I go to my grandfather’s house where we lived before the expulsion. I approach from the yard. I enter our apartment and go to the opening of the hidden storage space. The opening is still stopped up. The marauders missed this hiding space. I’m happy about that and hope we’ll be able to make use of the hidden goods when we need them. I climb up to the attic, drawing the ladder up behind me as I used to do when we lived in the ghetto. The mattress I slept on is still where I left it. I lie down, staring into the dark and daydream. My mind hops from one thought to another. I don’t know if I’m awake or asleep, until I notice the faint morning light penetrating the cracks in the walls supporting the roof.

I left the house and started walking toward the village to which I’d brought my mother. When I saw the village houses in the distance, it occurred to me that I didn’t want to bump into the man who’d thrown her out of his house. I therefore changed direction and headed to the adjacent village. I started asking passersby if they’d heard of Jews in the nearby forest. But nobody knew. I walked from one spot to another. I persisted with my questions, but no one had heard a thing. By noon I was ready to enter the forest and start looking on my own. I wandered around for hours, until it grew dark, but I found nothing. There was no indication of people nearby. It was pointless to look during the night. I left the forest and went to one of the villages where I looked for a place to sleep. As usual, I snuck into the barn of one of the farms. In the morning, I went to a different section of the forest. I wandered around for several hours, again without results. Despair started gnawing at me. What would I do if I didn’t find my mother there? Where would I look then? Who would I ask? I might be too late. Someone might inform on her and the Germans would get to her before I did. Or perhaps they had already been discovered and my searching was in vain. Is it better to go back to town and try to find out if any rumors are flying about? Maybe it’ll turn out that the Jews in the forest were caught and were, God forbid, murdered.

Preoccupied with these thoughts, I reach a higher spot. From the bare hillock one can see for miles. I climb to the top and look around. Far away, on the horizon itself, I see a small cloud. Actually, it’s more like smoke concentrated in one spot. The day is nice, so the presence of a single, small, isolated cloud is unnatural. I note the location in relation to the sun and start walking in that direction. After covering a significant distance, I start noticing signs of human presence nearby: a piece of paper, an empty cigarette pack. I then hear snatches of conversation. I turn and head toward the voices. By their cadence, it sounds like Yiddish. I round a small rise and suddenly see a group of Jews sitting around a bonfire roasting potatoes. The sight of them is shocking: their faces are swollen and beaten, and bruises show on every bit of uncovered skin. Their clothing is in tatters and their feet are wrapped in rags.

At first I didn’t recognize them, but they recognized me immediately and told me my mother was with them. “She’s only gone to gather some sticks for the fire. She’ll be right back,” they said. I leaned against a tree and waited. A few minutes later, I saw my mother approaching with a bundle of sticks in her arms. I ran toward her.

When she saw me, she dropped what she was carrying and wrapped her arms around me. “I didn’t think I’d last and live to see you again,” she says, choking back tears.

I also want to cry, but I can’t let myself. I’m not allowed to, am I? I have to be strong and weeping is a sign of breaking. I try to hold it in. It isn’t right for me to cry. I’m no longer a child. I’m already sixteen. I have to harden myself, be prepared for dangers and suffering, not give in to despair and not allow weakness to undermine me. But none of this helps. My eyes fill and tears drip down my cheeks.

I tell my mother we have to leave right away. “So many Jews in one place… it’s madness,” I tell the people there. “If I found you all by myself, image how easily German soldiers will discover you.”

I spoke to several of the people who had relatives in the labor camp and told them about conditions there. We then said our goodbyes and my mother and I set off.

We headed for a different part of the forest. We searched and found a hiding spot inside thickly growing vegetation. We gathered a bundle of branches in case we had to sleep outdoors. We waited for nightfall and then approached the nearest village to look for a hiding place for my mother. We actually met the peasant whom we had initially planned to seek out and asked him to hide her for a short time. I promised to repay him with a gold watch I’d hidden in the camp. The truth was that I was carrying the watch on me, but I was afraid of giving it to him right away, lest he take it and turn my mother out. I had become suspicious because his neighbor had thrown my mother out after we fled the ghetto. I gave him the watch only after several days. Much later I learned that my suspicion was unfounded. He was an honest man, possessing rare decency. He helped us on many subsequent occasions. He was always ready to assist without expecting anything in return.

After my mother had hidden out at his place for a couple of weeks, I came to move her to a more permanent hiding place at another farm. To my great surprise, the man took out the watch and offered it back to me. His gesture moved me profoundly, but I couldn’t accept it. I had the feeling that if I took it back, I would somehow disappoint him. I refused his offer and left in a hurry. I didn’t want to stay and wrestle with the temptation, one that might have had fateful consequences for us. Before leaving the ghetto, my mother had divided her jewelry among the three of us. We never let the pieces, meant to save us in emergencies, out of our sight. Now that my mother had been robbed, it was clear that I had to subsist – as far as possible – without spending the money and jewelry left. They were for helping my mother. Despite the horrible quandary, something in me would not let me take the watch back.

In the meantime, I decided that to avoid expenses it was best to go back to the labor camp. I went to the forest to pick up some of the men who had asked to join me. They invited me to sleep in the hut they’d constructed in the forest so that we’d be able to get going early the next morning. But, being used to taking precautions since living in the ghetto, I declined and told them it was best we slept apart. I promised I’d come get them in the morning and undertake our journey together.

I found the forest hiding place my mother and I had set up the previous day. I wedged myself inside the heap of branches and tried to go to sleep. But sleep eluded me. I was cold. I remained awake for hours. I must have fallen asleep just before dawn. I was frightened awake by the sound of shooting. I lay still, waiting. Amid the general noise, I could also make out the sound made by branches breaking and vegetation being pushed aside.

Someone is approaching. Whoever it is, he is quite close to me. I am hunched inside a heap of branches, tense and knowing I mustn’t move lest the branches around me crackle. I try to peek through the leaves, focusing my look on the direction of the noise. At a distance of eight meters or so, I see a German using his rifle to clear a path in the undergrowth. I’m trying to figure out what he’s up to. It seems that he hasn’t noticed me yet and that if he continues in a straight line he’ll pass me by without discovering me. I’m only afraid that a squirrel or bird will somehow draw his attention my way and that the heap of branches in which I’m hidden will arouse his suspicion. The minutes of terror seem like an eternity.

The German skirted me and was now past my hiding place. I continued to lie still until the shots and screams ended and the forest sank into its earlier silence. When all was still, I carefully crawled out of the heap and sat up. Vegetation surrounded me. I continued to sit in the same spot the whole day, until evening. I was afraid to move by daylight in case the Germans had set up ambushes to catch anyone still hiding and those who’d been able to flee.

When night fell and the forest was totally dark, I got up and started walking. I stopped frequently to listen for unusual sounds, eventually reaching the forest edge. I stood behind a tree to examine my surroundings, watch and listen for threatening sights and sounds. I still intended to return to the labor camp, but a few hours later I reached the farm I came through first, after fleeing the camp. I entered the barn again and went to sleep.

In the morning, the farmer again put me to work around the farm. And, like last time, he gave me, plenty of food. Around noon, his son arrived from town and said that the previous day the Germans had caught some fifty Jews – men, women and children – in the surrounding forests.

“They brought them to the sports field in town and shot them all to death.”

I was devastated. I asked for more details, but without letting on that I was nearby when the group was discovered. I thought it best to keep quiet. Telling them would only scare them.

I met Shimele two months later. He’d been with the group the Germans caught that night in the forest. In fact, he was one of the fellows who was suppose to have joined me in the morning to go back to the labor camp. He was the only survivor of that massacre and he told me how the other people were murdered – the same group my mother had been with just one day before. The morning I was awakened by gunshots, the others, who were sleeping in the hut, also woke up in a panic. Terror gripped their limbs. Some took off, crashing through the underbrush. The children started screaming. Because of the tumult, the Germans discovered them all and they were placed under guard. Other Germans pursued the ones trying to flee. Some were shot on the spot, while the others were rounded up and brought back to the group. Three by three, they were forcibly marched to town.

Shimele, Zalma and Yossele, Zalma’s seven-year old son, are one such threesome. The whole way, Yossele begs his father to try to escape. But his father explains that he thinks it’s impossible, because they are surrounded by armed Germans who’ll shoot them on the spot. Perhaps, once they’re inside town, they’ll have a better chance. Maybe they’ll try blending in with the non-Jewish spectators sure to line the road as they’re brought to the police station. That will depend on the townsfolk not informing on them, so their chances are slim.

Yossele turns to his father again, pleading with him to reconsider, to do something to save themselves. His father says: “Where will we go, my son? We fled once already, into the forest, when the ghetto was liquidated. You saw how much suffering we had to endure even in that short period. And winter is coming. We’ve been robbed of our money, coats and shoes. How will we survive in the dead of winter? Maybe we’re being sent to labor camps, after all, where we can somehow survive until salvation comes.”

“But Tata, they’re not sending us anywhere. They’re going to kill us on the spot,” says the little boy.

To this, his father answers, “If, God forbid, our destiny is to die, it is better to do so now rather than to continue to suffer humiliation, starvation and cold, without there being any chance of survival. Let’s say we manage to escape this time too. In the end, we won’t last. Either winter will kill us or we’ll be caught again.”

In the meantime, several Polish policemen have joined the guard watching the group. The order is given to proceed to the sports field. The Jews are led to a part of the grounds surrounded by earthen ramparts. Before the war, the place was used for target practice by Polish para-military trainees. If there were any doubts before – either in the forest or at the police station – as to the Germans’ intentions, now everyone understands that the boy was right. The end was near.

“Daddy, I’m afraid. I don’t want to die.”

“Don’t be afraid. You’re with me and I’m with you. We will always be together.” Shimele embraces his son and puts him in his lap so that Yossele’s back is to the shooters. When the Germans line up and aim their guns, Shimele smiles at his son to distract him in those last moments. The boy responds with a smile of his own, one that spreads to his entire face. With the first round of shooting, the slender thread of the boy’s life is cut. Father and son, still embraced, fall along with forty-eight others.

Shimele continued his story, “It was dark all around. Every part of my body was in excruciating pain. At first, I couldn’t remember what happened. Slowly it started coming back and I realized that I was wounded, but still alive. I felt my body. My hand came away slick with blood. I tried to move and realized I could. My eyes got accustomed to the dark. I saw death all around me, heaps of dead bodies. I got up on my hands and knees and tried to stand, but I was too dizzy and fell down. I started to crawl instead, right over the bodies of friends and acquaintances. I crawled all the way to the rampart where I again lost consciousness. After some time – I have no idea how long – it started raining and I woke up again. I started climbing the rampart. I made it to the top and rolled down the other side. I made another attempt to stand up. This time it worked. At first I walked without a clear direction. It was cold. I was shivering and weak and my legs didn’t want to carry me far. I sat down, leaned against a fence and tried to focus. I knew where I was, so after resting a bit I got up and headed for the ghetto.”

Once in the ghetto, Shimele became dizzy again. He lost his balance and fell.

“I continued crawling on all fours to one of the abandoned houses. I passed out again. When I opened my eyes, I saw a woman standing above me splashing water in my face.”

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Ruhama,” the figure answered.

Ruhama Rotman, a mother of seven, was widowed shortly before the liquidation of the ghetto. The Germans caught her husband on the Aryan side and murdered him. On the day the ghetto was emptied, she and her children hid in an attic and survived. The marauders missed them. A few days later, she fled into the forest with her kids. The rain that started that night found them all huddled together under a tree, shivering with cold. The rain turned into a storm with fierce winds and torrents of rainfall. The tree could offer no protection against the raging weather. They were all soaked to the skin and the wind sent ripples of cold through their bodies. At first the younger ones cried, but later on they were incapable of doing even that. Ruhama tried to shield them with her own body, but how can one woman cover seven children? Her groans were whisked away by the howling wind and crackling trees.

In the morning Ruhama decided to turn herself in to the German police headquarters. She approached the commanding officer and said: “Are you thirsty for children’s blood? I’ve brought you my children. Drink. Wash your hands in my babies’ blood. Let your conscience gnaw on your soul as long as you live. We no longer fear death. When the time comes, you’ll pay for your sickening crimes. That day is coming sooner than you think.”

The officer was taken aback. He looked at her and her children and said, “Gather your children and go home, woman. Nothing bad will happen to you.” Ruhama couldn’t believe her ears. She stood as if fossilized to the floor. “Take your children and get out!” the officer repeated. Without understanding, she took her children and headed for the ghetto. She went into her home, turned the stove on and washed the children in warm water. In the evening, she went out looking for food in the homes abandoned by the deported residents. Since then, Ruhama wandered the ghetto each night looking for food, blankets and clothing for her children.

“The night I arrived in the ghetto wounded,” Shimele continued talking, “Ruhama happened to wander into the house where I was lying unconscious. That’s how she came across me. She didn’t lose her wits and immediately started caring for me; so I returned to consciousness a third time. She washed me, removed my blood-soaked clothing, helped me stand up, put me to bed and cleaned and bandaged my wounds. She brought me a clean nightgown, made me hot soup and spoon-fed me. She saw to my every need. After a few days, I was able to stand up on my own. She then brought me to her house where she hid me in the attic and continued caring for me.”

“From time to time, the gendarmes would come around her house to ask if perhaps other Jews had returned to the ghetto. Ruahama understood. It wasn’t out of pity that the officer had let her and her children live. No, it was to use them as bait to draw other Jews back to the ghetto, thereby making it easier to catch them.”

“In the meantime, my wounds started to heal and we dared to hope I would get well. We schemed and planned another escape from the ghetto into the forest, but I was still too weak. As soon as I stood up, I’d get dizzy, lose my balance and fall. Lacking other options, we decided to wait until I was stronger. To save time, Ruhama started collecting warm clothing and tools, especially spades, from the abandoned homes. Our plan was to build an underground bunker in the forest. This time, we wanted to set things up so that we could manage for the long term and not be exposed to the cold and rain, as had been the case before. We decided that I would be the first one to leave: it was my job to locate a suitable spot. After finding it, I was to return to the ghetto, and together with Ruhama and her two oldest, we’d move some of our supplies and start digging the bunker. We’d hide the younger ones in the ghetto until we were done. When the bunker was ready, we’d move the rest of the children into the forest.”

“We knew we didn’t have a lot of time. Every additional day in the ghetto could seal our fate. I made a failed attempt to leave. I didn’t get very far, as I was too weak. It was too soon. I was forced to turn back. I kept falling on the way. The last bit in front of the house – I had to crawl and drag myself.”

“When I left the second time and came back the following day, I found no trace of Ruhama and her children. I felt faint. I climbed into the attic and lay there feverish. A few days later, I felt a little better. Although I knew I’d never see Ruhama and her children again, I wanted to know what had happened. When I left the ghetto, I asked a stranger and he told me that the morning I left the ghetto the German police arrived, took everyone to the Jewish cemetery and murdered them. The brave Ruhama, who appeared like a guardian angel above me on the fateful night I escaped, was murdered and lost. Her blood and the blood of her seven innocent children spilled without pity.”

Shimele gave me his chilling testimony two months later, when we met at the farm. Now, I was still in the village, preparing for my return to the labor camp in Wilga. Toward nightfall, I washed up, climbed into the loft of the barn and lay down in my warm bed of straw. When the farmer brought me supper, I asked him what less beaten path to take to get to the next village.

And that is how I made progress from one village to the next, moving in the direction of the camp. Each day I worked at a different farm, stayed the night and continued on my way. By Saturday, I’d made it close to where the camp laborers worked.

I hid among the reeds, and when the whistle ending the workday was sounded, I emerged from hiding and walked with the rest of the men, returning to camp with them. Everything fell into place; no one noticed me. Most people didn’t know one another. Most people could no longer think from weakness and exhaustion. Their only goal was to make it back to camp and rest on their planks. So, that evening, with no questions asked, I walked back into the camp. I took my portion of watery soup masquerading as supper and lay down in my usual spot on the uppermost bunk. My “neighbors” didn’t ask where I’d been. No one here was interested in anyone else.

I wasn’t particularly tired. I lay awake and tried to think of my next step. If I stayed in camp and worked in slave labor like everyone else, without getting minimal nutrition, I would grow ever weaker and lose my will to continue struggling. On the other hand, further wandering from village to village and working on random farms was also not a solution. Sooner or later, I’d run into a fervid anti-Semite or collaborator, who would inform on me to the Germans or capture me himself and turn me in. It would be helpful to find someone in the camp from my town who still had some possessions and would be able to pay a peasant to hide us. Given the contacts I’d made with the farmers on my way to the camp and back, I assumed I’d be able to convince at least one of them to hide us, in exchange, of course, for a handsome payment. So during the winter and toward spring, I thought it would be easier to hide in the forest.

The next day was Sunday, our day off from work. I tried to convince some people from my town, who I thought may still have the financial means, to follow my plan. After talking to several individuals, I realized no one was too happy with my original idea; however, a group of people interested in escaping were ready to pay me to serve as their guide and lead them out of the camp. I managed to gather a large group of men, each of whom paid me an agreed-upon sum. I wasn’t completely comfortable with taking money for providing help. I tried to quiet my conscience with the fact that I had no choice: I had to make sure my mother was well taken care of. I had to do whatever it took to make enough to pay the peasants still willing to take the risk of hiding her.

The next day, when we arrived at the worksite, we snuck off into the reeds and gathered around a bush. I pointed to a spot in the distance that would serve as a meeting place for those who wanted me to smuggle them out of the camp and be their guide. From there, using paths familiar to me from my earlier escape, I brought them some ten kilometers away from camp. At a well-known crossroads, we said our goodbyes and each of us went his separate way.

I waited for nightfall in the forest. Once it was dark, I again snuck into the ghetto. Like the last time, I headed for Rachelka’s house. I went into the cellar. I was sorry to see that nothing had changed. The words, “We’re safe” and my own name were still chalked on the wall. Saddened and preoccupied by memories, I returned home. I sat down on the windowsill in the room that had once been my grandfather’s parlor. Before the house was destroyed, there had been a table under that window where my grandmother used to sit. I loved sitting next to her. Despite my sorrow, I smiled as I remembered my grandmother’s stories. She usually told them on the Sabbath at nightfall, after the sun had set but before the stars had come out, when it was too dark to read, but not yet permissible to light a lamp [3]. The room would be enveloped in darkness as my soul would be embraced by her stories. While we waited for the Sabbath to end, her stories spilled out effortlessly.

My grandmother would speak of Herschele, her father and my namesake. In one story, she’s about my age. She is traveling with her father as he steers a horse-drawn cart to distant Warsaw to sell: dairy products, eggs and fresh produce. They travel all night long and arrive in the big city early in the morning with their fresh goods. On the city’s outskirts, when dawn is just breaking and it is neither night nor day and the universe is still sleeping, a Jew slips behind the cart, grabs a basket of cheese and starts running. My great-grandfather Herschele reins in the horses. The cart stops.

Herschele calls out, “My dear Jew, don’t run, I beg you. Stop running and listen to me. First of all, you haven’t stolen anything. Whatever you took was a gift. But instead of taking a sack of apples as a gift, you took a basket of cheese, and the cheese will go bad. Besides, what will a Jew like you do with a basket filled with cheese? Come back and switch your gift for a sack of apples.”

The Jew stops. He looks into the basket. Herschele’s idea appeals to him.

“You speak wisely,” the Jew says, “but what is a Jew like me to do if I return the cheese to you and it then turns out that you forgot the apples at home?! My wife and children are hungry and can’t wait for you to come back to Warsaw with the apples. Clearly, your honor wouldn’t go out of his way for so trifling a matter on my behalf.”

Hence the Jew and my great-grandfather continue to debate until they reach a solution. First of all, Herschele will check to make sure he hasn’t forgotten “the gift,” of apples. Then he will take “the gift” in his own hands and place it on the sidewalk on the other side of the street. At the same time, the Jew will place the basket of cheese on the near sidewalk. At the very same moment, both will drop their goods. Herschele will cross the street to retrieve the cheese and the Jew will cross in the opposite direction and take the sack of apples. Thus all will end happily. The deal comes off precisely as suggested.

Herschele, my great-grandfather, is overjoyed. He considers the encounter a good omen – a successful start to a good day of business. Look – so early in the morning and he’s already made a profit in this world and stored up a good deed for the world to come. And the profit is multiple: one, he saved a Jew from committing a grievous sin, a sin specified in the Ten Commandments, by giving him the apples as a gift. The man was no longer liable for “Thou shalt not steal.” Two, he performed the commandment of charity because he helped feed a family in need. The man did say his wife and children were hungry. Matters must surely have become unbearable if the man had arisen before dawn to look for something to feed his family. Three, he also profited economically because the basket of cheese cost much more than the sack of apples.

A different Sabbath and a different story, my grandmother sighs. I can tell she is holding back tears. She is remembering her youngest sister, the most beautiful of the girls in the family. She fell in love with a peasant and converted to Christianity. Her parents loved their children fiercely, especially that girl, their beautiful last-born daughter. They scrimped and saved on their own needs, but spent lavishly on their children. They lacked for nothing, especially as they grew into adulthood. The parents made sure to fill their every need. They saved to help their children marry and establish their own families. But after being abandoned by their youngest, nothing brought them any comfort until the day they died. My grandmother is feeling her own pain and the pain of her long-dead parents. The day the daughter ran off, the family began the ritual seven-day period of mourning, as if their youngest, who had abandoned her family and faith, had died. The family home knew no more joy and her sister’s name was never to be mentioned again. My grandmother is also sorry for her sister because she too, led a miserable life. People said they would see her on Friday nights, after the Sabbath candle-lighting, wandering in the dark, hiding her face from strangers and peeking in through the window of her parent’s house. Tears stream down her face. She is hardly recognizable. The sister looks like a ghost of her former self.

My grandmother also tells stories about Baruch, her brother.

She begins with a riddle, “With his own two hands, he rejected joy and goodness just because he desired a beautiful bride.”

“What happened?” I ask, entranced.

“Patience, my dear; sit still and I’ll tell you,” my grandmother replies. “On the other side of the Wisla lived a rich and respected Jew, a lumber merchant. He’d buy forestland from the Polish noblemen and land owners, chop down the trees and export the wood abroad. He would float barges of timber down the Wisla all the way to the Baltic Sea. There, the lumber would be loaded on ships that sailed to distant lands. Now everyone knows that dealing in lumber is a profitable business. That man had an only daughter who was blessed with every fine quality, save one: she wasn’t very beautiful. Other than that, God had stinted on nothing: she was more intelligent, smart, talented and hardworking than anyone. She knew her way around the prayer book as well as any man, and could find the right place, whether it was the Sabbath or a holiday, in the liturgy. Some said she could even read and translate the weekly Torah portion [4] and that she studied the Mishnah [5] together with her father. Since he didn’t have a son and she was his only child, her parents heaped all their love on her.”

“When she matured and people started making matchmaking hints, her parents prepared a lavish dowry: beautiful clothes, beautiful dishes, household goods – only of the very best quality. Now all they needed was a groom. The father went in search of a bright young man, someone he could one day give his lumber business to manage. With every passing year, his desire to devote less time to everyday concerns and more time to the study of Torah grew stronger. Matchmakers were in and out of the house, proposing wealthy, respectable prospects, but the girl says no. Each time she comes up with another excuse, and refuses every offer. Nobody can figure it out. Her parents, relatives, friends and acquaintances all beseech her – but the girl has a mind of her own. She rejects every engagement offer and says that her heart has not yet decided to marry. She causes her parents a great deal of worry. So her father decides to visit the rabbi to pour out his heart and ask for salvation for his daughter.”

My grandmother continues: “It just so happens that at precisely the same time – it is just before Rosh Hashanah – my father decides to go to the rabbi and ask him for a new year’s blessing. And so the rabbi thinks of a match between my father’s son and the lumber merchant’s daughter. The would-be in-laws raise a toast and go home in high spirits. It’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that if the rabbi has made the match, the match will succeed. The two fathers agree that immediately after the High Holidays the in-laws will meet the families, perform the betrothal and celebrate the engagement at the home of the bride.”

And that’s exactly what happened. After the holidays, Herschele harnesses the horses to his cart and the entire family, with the groom in the lead, sets out for the bride’s home. At that end, the prospective in-laws are making all the arrangements, preparing the refreshments and inviting the guests. The party is supposed to take place the next day.

“The hosts receive us with joy and make sure our every wish is granted,” my grandmother says, “but I notice right away that, when the bride and groom were introduced to one another, my brother’s face changed.”

It turned out that the bride isn’t pretty enough for my great-uncle Baruch. He doesn’t like the way she looks. In the afternoon, when the relatives are all resting, Baruch tries to convince his father to break his word about the engagement. Obviously, Herschele is livid. The rabbi himself made the match! And if the rabbi made the match, it means that the match is from heaven. Everyone knows that even before a baby is conceived, a heavenly voice goes out and announces who the child will marry [6].

“I don’t care what you say,” Herschele is adamant. “What’s done is done. There’s not going to be any trickeries, backpedaling or delays. It’s decreed from heaven. This match will happen.”

After the afternoon nap, the in-laws meet again to discuss the terms of the betrothal. In the heat of the debate, nobody notices the young couple leaving. The two are now alone in another room where an altogether different sort of conversation is taking place. The groom learns that the bride is no more interested in marriage than he is. The young people come to an understanding: that night, the groom will leave in full accordance with the bride’s wishes. Not only does she forgive him the ensuing unpleasantness, she will in fact be grateful to him. She promises to make it publicly clear, in front of everyone, that the decision was mutual. She will announce before one and all that neither he nor his family must be blamed. So the young couple bade their farewells and rejoined their guests without anyone being the wiser.

In the middle of the night, the groom dresses quietly, hangs his shoes over his shoulders and leaves the bride’s home. The next day, everyone looks for him, but he’s nowhere to be found. Everything is ready for the party, only the groom is missing and nobody knows what’s what. My great-grandfather, who knows all too well what his son is capable of, especially after yesterday’s conversation, tries to smooth things over. He suggests the food be distributed to the poor, at his expense, until matters are resolved. As he winds-up his little speech, the bride asks for permission to speak and to make some things clear. Admitting the part she’s played in all of this, she tries to appease her parents and the guests.

“Fate did not wish this engagement to take place,” she says. “I already have a groom, which is why neither this match nor any other match will succeed.”

“What? Who?” Everyone wants to know.

“I can’t yet say,” she says to the astounded guests, “but when the time comes you’ll find out.” The girl refuses to say anything else. How is she going to tell her father, an honored lumber merchant who is both wealthy and great in Torah learning, that his only daughter has fallen in love with a carpenter’s apprentice?! He’s a young man with no family and no significant lineage. Nobody knows him or of him. Not even a proper carpenter yet! In fact, his job is to make wooden roof tiles.

What curious twist of fate makes a girl from a good home fall in love with such a young man? It must be thanks to the merit of his forbearers [7]. Because he is an orphan who grew up in his grandfather’s house, he’s called Yossele the orphan. After his grandfather died, he wandered from one place to another until arriving at the workshop that makes and installs wooden roof tiles. The workshop happens to be located in the girl’s neighborhood. He is taken on as an apprentice and he works hard. To make his time there more pleasant, Yossele sings. He sings folksongs, snatches of the synagogue liturgy and Hassidic songs he learned from his grandfather and in various houses of prayer. When Yossele sings, his voice pierces the young woman’s soul. He sings, he hums, he trills. His melodies captivate. His voice rises and falls, like pearls spilling into a crystal bowl. The young woman can hear him singing as she helps around the house. Without noticing, his melodies stick in her mind for hours on end. She learns the songs herself and hums them quietly as she works. When the young man hears her singing, he joins in and adds harmonies. He sounds like birdsong on a bright spring day. His sweet voice, so full, gentle and moving, magically captures her heart. On days when there is no singing – because Yossele the orphan has been sent to work outside the workshop – the young woman is despondent. Without giving it too much thought, she finds herself in the alleyways of the town, trying to locate his bewitching voice. She wanders around the neighborhood, sending sideways glances to the rooftops. When the young man sees her, his spirit lifts and his song reaches the very heavens.

For some time, the two meet in secret, but then her parents discover the romance. Having no choice in the matter, her father takes the young man under his wing and brings him into the business. To everyone’s delight, the young man proves to be diligent and also has a knack for business. In the end, the young couple marry and live a happy and prosperous life.

Great-uncle Baruch, my grandmother’s brother, also finds his true love. She is lovely to behold. Her name is Esterka. He lives a happy life, though prosperity comes to him only in his dreams. Some say everyone finally accepted the situation for what it was and both couples were content only because Yossele was an orphan.

Uncle Baruch works as a baker and dreams of riches. When he’s in good spirits, he fantasizes, often out loud.

“Imagine,” he tells them, “if luck went my way and I became a well-known merchant. I would have a large fabric store in Warsaw, like a Pole.” He continues softly, “I’d pick only the finest quality cloths, give them to haute couture seamstresses and dress my Esterka in garments fit for a queen. I’d seat her next to the cash register so that everyone could marvel at her beauty. I’d hire experienced salespeople and the customers would run them ragged. I wouldn’t have anything to do with the customers; I’d only give orders. I’d tell one: ‘Display the new merchandise that just arrived from Lodz.’ [8] And to the other, I’d say: ‘Get the English cloth down and show it to the merchant from Lublin, because it’s a large city and highly placed customers shop at his emporium.’ When it’s time to dine, I would tell him to lock up the shop so that no one bothers us, and I would send him out to bring us the best of the best. And for my Esterka, I tell him to bring cake and coffee made entirely with milk from the finest café – what do you call it - cappuccino? I would spoil her not only on the Sabbath eve, but every day of the week. She loves her cake with her coffee. I would tell her, ‘Go for it! Enjoy life!’ Ah yes…” He does get carried away.

Early one morning, I go to Uncle Baruch’s bakery to buy baked goods for the house, as I do most mornings. Seated at the large table is an official in uniform, wearing a brimmed cap similar to a policeman’s cap, though the cap is green like his uniform, rather than blue like a policeman’s. I look at his getup and decide he is from the government: his brass buttons are embossed with the crowned eagle, the Polish symbol of the state. The official looks completely at ease; a large book is open before him.

“Have you hired a new clerk for the store?” I jokingly ask my uncle in Yiddish.

“He’s not a clerk. He’s an accountant,” my uncles answers in the same language. He gives a light shake of the head, signaling me to say no more.

The next morning, I go to the bakery as usual. This time Uncle Baruch tells me the man was a tax collector. He came to seize possessions for unpaid taxes. My uncle explains that, according to Polish law, items required for the minimal subsistence of Poland’s citizens cannot be seized. This would include food – bread and baked goods included – as well as a bed with its bedding, a table, a bench and one of each type of utensil. Now, when the tax collector is on his way, the rumor spreads through town like wildfire. Anyone who can’t pay his taxes hides anything that could be seized with neighbors whose taxes are in order. That’s how you dodge the tax collector, year in, year out; however, the debt only grows. Once you factor in late payment penalties and interest, you can’t even begin to dream of ever paying it off. So you remain in debt your entire life.

“The game between the authorities and the debtors is like that between cat and mouse,” Uncle Baruch says. “Woe is those whom the tax collector manages to surprise. All his assets are seized and those are usually the last means by which he manages to subsist and support his family.”

When the tax collector comes to town, the victim is always the first man he visits. Yesterday morning, that man happened to be Uncle Baruch, who then frantically searched for some ruse whereby he could keep the tax collector in the bakery so that family members – well-trained by now – could spirit seizable items out of the house. The bread and other baked goods stayed in the store because they couldn’t be taken. So my uncle decided to greet the treasury official politely and detain him in the shop.

“Welcome!” he calls out, and asks him about his business and wishes, as if he hadn’t recognized him the moment his foot crossed the threshold. The official introduces himself as the new tax collector and tells him it’s his first day on the job. My uncle congratulates him on his new position and says he is flattered that so honored a government official should visit him first, and on his first day on the job, no less.

In the meantime, my uncle is thinking fast. Given that the man is new and still green, he is probably not yet familiar with the debtors’ tricks. My uncle decides to test his theory out and asks a purposely naïve question, “What sum is being assessed this time around?” The tax collector notes the amount of taxes for the last quarter, and adds, “My good citizen must have forgotten to pay. The due date has already passed.”

Uncle Baruch defends himself, “I have not, in fact, forgotten. I never forget my debt to the state. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the cash on hand. I do, however, plan on paying the annual debt in one lump sum.” This seems to appease the collector.

“Could you perhaps prepare a consolidated annual statement for me?” he suggests.

The official quickly opens his briefcase, leans it against one upraised knee and starts to look for the debtors’ ledger for the current tax year; but, the briefcase slides off and crashes to the floor.

My uncle takes advantage of the fuss and addresses him very politely, “Excuse me, good sir, I can see that you are uncomfortable making out the statement while standing up. Please, let me bring you a table and chair so that you can do your work in comfort as befits so dignified an official as yourself.”

So my uncle sets up a table and chair and even offers the official some refreshments. Without waiting for an answer, my uncle sets out several sweet buns before him and bustles about making him a cup of tea. The tax collector, cheered by the courtesy extended to him, decides to set himself down and get comfortable. He wiggles out of his coat, removes his cap and rolls up his sleeves. He then dons his reading glasses, takes out the ledger, puts it on the table, sits down and gets to work. After adding up the quarterly installments, he adds only the smallest fine possible, tallies up the total and arrives at a hefty sum. He fills out the annual statement and places it before my uncle.

“So with this one payment, I’m erasing my entire debt to the government, is that correct?” my uncle asks.

“I haven’t yet looked,” says the tax collector, “to see if my good citizen perhaps owes back taxes for previous years.”

The water has boiled. While pouring the official a cup of tea, my uncle asks him to check if there are debts from previous years, and if so, what the sum is. The tax collector removes a ledger thicker than the first in which the debts of the last five years have been tallied and starts to leaf through it. He finds there are considerable debts from past years too. Nonetheless, in light of the friendly atmosphere in the room, the tax collector explains that, in certain cases, he has the discretion to arrange a monthly payment plan. My uncle thanks him for the special treatment he’s getting and says it sounds like a fine idea. He asks him to calculate the total debt and use the sum to set the monthly payments. So the tax collector again starts to add up the annual debt for each of the past years and the interest due, but this time he forgives the fine. Somewhere in the middle, he gets mixed up, realizes he’s made an error and has to start the calculations from scratch.

All of this takes a while, allowing for plenty of time for the rumor of the tax collector’s arrival to spread throughout town. All the other families have stashed away all non-essentials and are ready for inspection. The official, in the meantime, is straining to make sense of the numbers in front of him: his last attempt at addition has resulted in an astronomical sum. He turns to Uncle Baruch and asks if he wants to pay some of it in cash and the rest in installments, or if he wants to divide the sum into monthly payments.

“Could you repeat the total for me?” my uncle says. After receiving his answer, he mutters to himself, repeats the sum and finally expresses his astonishment at the generosity of the Polish treasury.

“Oh my goodness,” Uncle Baruch says with amazement, “the personnel at our treasury are absolutely the best and most decent people around! Here in town, nobody is willing to lend me as much as a sack of flour, but the government and its officials have placed such trust in me and lent me so much money. The impression you’ve made on me, my honest fellow, leads me to think that if your honor makes the recommendation to his superiors in the district bureau, they will not hesitate to give me another small loan in cash. I certainly have nothing to teach you on how to make this happen. You’ve worked in the district bureau and can obviously take the proper steps wherever necessary. I’m sure you’ll be able to persuade them to make me just another small loan, so that I can buy enough flour, instead of running out each day to buy just half a sack. This generous act would be really helpful,” he continues his verbal acrobatics, “and also save a lot, because buying in bulk for cash is much cheaper than half of a sack at a time on credit. It could radically change my situation. The bakery will be able to recover and both I and the treasury will benefit. When I can support my family with dignity and won’t have to worry too much about where the next meal will come from, I’ll be able to take time and think how best to invest my profits to get a good return. But before doing anything else, I would repay the debt in full, the old and the new, even pay compound interest, to the last grosz [9]. And all thanks to the goodness of my good sir and the goodness of the government.”

The tax collector’s face had grown redder through Uncle Baruch’s speech. Now he was practically purple, but he said nothing, though his pursed lips were a clear indication of his rage. He got up, took his belongings and strode out of the store, loudly slamming the door behind him.

I was startled by a cat that streaked past and broke my chain of thought, bringing me back to the bitter present. I left the house and the ghetto, heading to the village where I’d left my mother. It was fairly close by, a mile and a half away, two at most. It was the right time of day to enter the village without being noticed. The lights were still on in the house where I’d placed my mother. I looked into the windows from the outside to make sure there were no strangers there, and then went indoors. I exchanged greetings with the farmer and handed him the watch I’d promised him. I asked him how my mother was and he led me to her hiding place in the attic.

It was dark up there, with pale moonlight coming in through a narrow opening on the other side of the attic providing the only illumination.

“Mama,” I whispered.

“Over here, son. I don’t want to make too much noise. You too should take care not to disturb the people downstairs.”

I crawled over the straw covering the attic floor until I reached her. My mother pressed me to her and stroked my head. For a moment I felt like a little boy again. When my eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, I saw that my mother had recovered somewhat. The wrinkles of pain she’d had in the forest were gone. She was calmer, dressed in warm clothes and covered by plenty of blankets.

A short while later, the farmwoman brought up cooked food and waited for us to finish. While we were eating, she described how my mother’s presence was frightening her.

“Something awful will happen to us if, God forbid, your mother is discovered. A rumor is going around that a Jew was discovered on a farm near here. The Germans took the Jew and the entire family and shot every last one of them to death in front of the whole village as a warning to everyone else.”

I did my best to calm her down. I promised that I’d leave before dawn and that within a week, two at the most, I’d find another place for my mother and come to get her.

I had to buy time because I’d have to pay again for whatever new place I found. Every day in hiding added to our chances of surviving. We just had to hang in there until spring when we’d somehow be able to survive in the forest.

After this conversation, I managed to penetrate the labor camp two more times and lead another two groups out of it. Two weeks later, as I was heading back to get my mother to move her to another hiding place, as I had promised the farmwoman, I met Yisrael Yaakov Shalit, the brother of Menahem Shalit who had courted my sister in the ghetto. He told me that he’d made a deal with a peasant who would build him and his family a well-designed hiding place in a very large barn built of logs. They took about two and a half meters off the depth of the barn and built a double wall of identical logs, so to the untrained eye the interior wall looked just like the exterior one.

“If you want to join us, I’m sure that in exchange for more money the farmer will let you stay too.”

Yaakov Shalit was, without a doubt, a godsend. For one, my mother wouldn’t be alone. For another, once I saw the place, I realized that I couldn’t have dreamt of a better hiding place. It was well-hidden at the rear of the barn and it wasn’t cold. The farmer had built bunks in the little room and spread them with fresh, clean straw.

Without hesitation, I moved my mother there. Now my next goal was to locate my sister. I wanted to see how she was getting on and if it was necessary to move her as well to the new hiding place. I didn’t know where she was, though. I only knew the name of the village she and her friend had headed towards. That’s where I went to ask if anyone had seen two young Jewish women. Someone said he’d seen a group of Jews wandering the forests nearby, including two girls who were sitting and knitting. According to his description, it sounded like my sister and her friend.

I wandered the area for several days. I searched those woods from morning to night, but didn’t find anything to indicate the presence of human beings. One day, I met an old woman gathering mushrooms. She pointed to a spot in the forest where she claimed to have seen Jews warming themselves next to a bonfire about two weeks earlier. I wandered in that direction and found evidence of bonfires, but no people. Someone else directed me to a certain peasant who ran a big farm and he said that, yes, he’d seen the girls I was looking for, but they’d left for parts unknown.

By now, two weeks had passed. I had to go back to my mother and pay the farmer the sum we’d agreed on in exchange for him sheltering her. The village she was in was on the other side of our town, and I had a choice: skirt town or go through it. Because I was constantly hoping to run into Rachelka at some point, I decided to go through town.

When I got to town, I again went down into Rachelka’s cellar in the ghetto. I was once again immensely disappointed not to find another sign of life from her. I headed for the bridge over the stream that I still had to cross. I was walking through the alley to get to the bridge when I saw a flashlight signaling next to the bridge. I scurried behind a house and peered through the darkness. Maybe it wasn’t a signal, but someone lighting his or her way in the dark. Still, even though I didn’t see any other suspicious action, I decided not to take any risks. It was common knowledge that the Germans would sometimes hide next to unavoidable junctions, such as railroad crossings and bridges. They would lie in ambush there for smugglers moving foodstuffs, cattle and swine. This type of trade was, of course, unlicensed by the occupying forces and smugglers were harshly punished. It was best not to risk it, and so I turned back the way I came.

Taking a different route, I crossed the stream where it narrowed and planks for foot traffic had been put across. On the way there, walking down one of the darkened streets of town, I see a girl in peasant dress coming my way. Her walk reminds me of my sister. I pass her in the dark without being able to make out her face. I stop walking, turn around and stare at the girl’s back. To my surprise, the figure that has passed me also stops. I hesitate: should I approach her or not? Should I call my sister’s name? But I’ve missed my chance. The figure is on the move again and increasing her speed. I don’t dare pursue her. I can’t risk being caught chasing a strange non-Jewish girl, something that might cost me my life.

I continue walking toward the footpath crossing with a heavy heart. I think, “Fate is toying with me. I’ve been searching villages and forests for my sister for two weeks now. I’ve been running all sorts of risks just to find her. Now, because of blind chance – a flashlight near the bridge – I’m forced to change my plan and take a different route. And that’s when I bump into her! And yet I don’t have the guts to go up to her? Call her name?” I’m second-guessing myself madly. “How did I let her slip away without following her? On the other hand, what makes me so sure it’s actually her? Maybe thinking about her and wanting so badly to find her made me imagine things and misinterpret what I saw. Maybe it’s best not to act rashly. I don’t want to give myself away.” But my thinking only goes in circles.

“What if it was her?” I ask myself. “Where could she have gone? Where can I find her?”

Suddenly, it occurs to me that maybe she’s on her way to see our mother. She doesn’t know about the new hiding place, but she does know where our mother fled when we left the ghetto. Instead of heading for our mother’s new location, I decide to see if the young woman, whom I suspect is my sister, has gone to the farmhouse where we had originally decided to hide our mother.

I again reach the farm and, as usual, before entering I peek through the window. I am amazed to see my sister inside.

Yes, fate had been playing tricks. When we passed one another in town, she too had suspected who I was. But the moment I stopped, she’d panicked. She was afraid that she’d been recognized, so before thinking it through, she decided to get out of there as fast as she could.

“I can’t believe,” I say, “how things turned out. But – what does it matter? The important thing is that we found one another.”

According to my sister, the hiding place she and her friend were in was discovered and they had had to flee. I brought her to my mother’s new hiding spot that evening. It’s hard to describe their meeting. It was dark and I couldn’t see their faces, but I could hear their sobs and feel their emotions.

“Despite the horrors that have happened to us since we split up,” I thought “and despite the anxiety about the future, we struggle and survive amid the slaughter of our people. We mustn’t despair. We’re together again and we shall overcome!” Tears of joy welled up in my eyes. This moment was one of pure, transcendent joy.

[1]Immigration to the land of Israel is expressed in Hebrew by the word meaning “to ascend” (la’alot) as that land is considered higher in sanctity than the rest of the world.
[2]Some strains of Judaism consider it sinful to effect the return of the Jewish people to Zion, as foretold by the Biblical prophets, by human agency. These strains insist that the return to Zion must be the result of God’s intervention in the form of the Messiah. Until then, Jews must suffer in the diaspora until their iniquities have been forgiven and God Himself announced the return to Zion.
[3]Observant Jews do not light fires of any kind (cooking stove, candles, etc.) or even turn electrical switches on and off on the Sabbath, i.e., from sunset on Friday until dark on Saturday night.
[4]The Pentateuch is divided into sections corresponding to the weeks of the year and read sequentially on the Sabbath so that a reading of the whole Torah is completed every year.
[5]The Mishnah is a six-volume compendium of the Oral Law based on the Pentateuch. In turn, it forms the basis for the Talmud.
[6]In the Talmud (Sota 2a), Rabbi Yehuda is quoted as saying that, forty days before conception, a heavenly voice announces that “the daughter of so-and-so will marry such-and-such.”
[7]The concept of zekhut avot (literally “ancestors’ merit”) is central in traditional Judaism, and often refers to the Jewish people’s forefathers (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and foremothers (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel), though it can refer to more immediate ancestors as well.
[8]The economy of Lodz, Poland’s third-largest city, focused on the textile industry until the 1990s. It developed in throughout the 19th century, to the point the city was sometimes called the “Polish Manchester.”
[9]The Polish zloty is subdivided into 100 groszy.