Chapter 7

I allowed myself to remain with my mother and sister one more day. As I was considered a guest for a single day, at that, the farmer didn’t ask for extra payment.

On the morrow, I headed again for the labor camp. I had a new idea for surviving without using up our reserves; perhaps, even making a profit in the bargain. In our town, cordwaining – the profession of sewing the soft uppers of the shoe – was entirely in Jewish hands. After the expulsion of the Jews from the ghetto, the non-Jewish shoemakers who wanted to continue making shoes were forced to import uppers from afar. This was both costly and inconvenient. Therefore I decided to smuggle two cordwainers out of the camp and find them a spot on a remote farm where they’d be able to set up a workshop. Then I would reach out to several non-Jewish cobblers I could trust and take their orders. I believed we’d make enough profit to pay the farmer and perhaps also save some to help us make it through the winter.

Still deep in my thoughts, I’m nearing a patch of forest I have to cross to get to the camp. At the edge, I see two peasant youths. They’re a little older than I am – maybe twenty or so, perhaps older. One is holding an ax, the other a walking stick. They’re staring at me. I don’t like their looks and I want nothing to do with them. Instead of continuing straight ahead, I turn into the field to bypass them.

“Hey you, Jew boy, over here, now!” one of them calls out. I stop and think. At this point, there’s no way to avoid them. Given the tone of voice and the insulting label, it is clear that if I fall in their hands, things will not end well for me. It seems as if I’ve walked into a trap. I have nowhere to go, no way to escape. What should I do? Who will help me?

I freeze. I can’t move. Then I hear a voice, as if from heaven, calling me, “Don’t go there! Come to me.” Where’s it coming from? Who can it be? I look right and left and then I see a peasant girl coming out of the forest. Like an angel of salvation, she stands between me and the young men. When I see my chance to escape, I don’t hesitate another second. I run toward her.

“Keep running!” she whispers. “I’ll take care of them.”

I continue into the forest. I put considerable distance between us and hide in the thick underbrush. A few minutes later, I hear rapid footsteps. They pass without noticing me. The noise recedes and disappears. The forest is silent again. Only the rustle of leaves, and in that rustle, an echo of the girl’s sweet voice: “Don’t go there! Come to me.”

I look around. There’s not a living soul in sight. My heart fills with gratitude and my lips move in prayer, blessing the nameless girl for her kindness.

Cautiously, so as not to encounter the two thugs again, I decided not to use the forest path I knew, but I quickly got lost. I continued walking at random until I came across the forester’s house, an isolated place in the heart of the woods. There were no other structures, just the one house and a small patch for potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables. Around the clearing, the forest extended in every direction as far as the eye could see.

Despite my anxiety, I approached the house and entered the yard. I saw the forester kneeling next to a wagon on the other side of the yard. It seemed as if he was fixing the wagon’s undercarriage. After I greeted him, he righted himself and stood up. He was enormous – almost two and a third meters tall, with a build to match. He examined me from head to toe. Without greeting me in return, he asked me what I was doing there. I told him I was lost in the woods and that the path I’d found had led me here. His features were coarse and his voice gravelly. Had I had the opportunity to look at him carefully beforehand, I may very well have decided against entering his yard.

But now I’m here, I have no safe way to retreat. Trying to be as affable as I can be, I ask him to put me to work in exchange for just one meal. He stands there without answering me, as if weighing up the pros and cons. My knees are trembling while I wait for him to make up his mind. It occurs to me that it may be best to hightail it out of here right then and there.

“Today you ask me for work. Tomorrow you’ll rob me,” the giant’s voice booms.

“What! What makes you say that? Good sir,” I say. “Someone who asks for work has no interest in robbing anyone. Robbers want an easy life; they’re too lazy to work. As long as you’re willing to employ me, I’ll work gladly. If you have nothing for me to do, I’ll go on my way and look for work elsewhere.”

“Never mind,” the forester answers. “I wasn’t serious. I just wanted to see your answer. It’s too late today. Tomorrow we’ll go into the forest and chop firewood for the winter. Climb into my attic and sleep there tonight. I’ll wake you up at daybreak. Then you’ll have the chance to prove yourself.”

At the entrance to the house was a hallway. Once inside, he told me to climb up to the loft. But the conversation had left a bad taste in my mouth. I was uneasy. His talk and suspiciousness did not bode well. I decided to look for a way out and leave as soon as possible.

The loft had two windows, one on either side of the house. One faced the direction from which I’d come, and the other faced the forest. I realized I had no choice: I had to wait until dark, lower myself from the window and disappear among the trees. While I’m quietly pacing from one window to the other and checking out the surroundings, I see two cyclists dressed in city clothes approaching the house. This makes me even more uneasy than I already am. I start suspecting they are undercover policemen coming to arrest me or collaborators seeking information about Jews hiding in the forests. I decide not to waste any more time. The moment they enter the house, I jump from the window into the forest and start to run.

A few days later, I realized that this had saved my life. On my way back to the labor camp, I happened across another forester. He warned me about the giant who had urged him to hand over any Jews in the area to the Germans or to kill them himself. He seemed to believe that the Jews hiding in the forest would soon turn into robbers. The giant had also added, “Just a few days ago, there was a Jewish kid in my house. I was about to take him into the forest and do him in myself. But I did something stupid: I decided to put it off till the next day and in the meantime the little Jew boy got away…”

My plan to make a living with the cordwainers did not pan out. I did manage to smuggle two professionals out of the camp and bring them to an isolated farm, and I did succeed in persuading the farmer to cooperate. He even gave us room in his barn, where we created a hiding place and a workspace not visible to the outside. We also arranged a lookout post in the barn where we could observe the surroundings, and with a pull of a rope, warn one another of approaching strangers. Everything was ready, except for the sewing machine that one of the men had left with a non-Jew before the liquidation of the ghetto. Both went to get it, but neither returned. I waited for them for more than a week, during which time I helped the farmer with his usual chores. It was clear to me that in the last few days he was both disappointed and anxious. I headed out before he had a chance to ask me to leave.

I worked at another nearby farm for a few days. One night, I snuck back to see if the cordwainers had perhaps returned. I was ashamed to show myself to the farmer. I entered the hiding place, but no one was there. There was nothing to indicate anyone had come back. I realized there was no point in waiting any longer. The next evening I left the area and set out for my mother’s and sister’s hiding place.

En route, I stopped in town again. I went down to the cellar where Rachelka and her family had hidden when the ghetto was liquidated. There was no change since my last visit. With a heavy heart, I turned to go back to our own house. The opening to the hiding space where I had concealed all our goods stood open and the space was completely empty. For some reason, it didn’t upset me very much. So many things had happened to me in the brief time since leaving the ghetto that this didn’t come as a surprise. I sat down on some bricks. This had once been the garden. I leaned against a charred tree trunk bereft of its canopy, one of several trees that had gone up in flames. I started remembering our house, my grandfather’s house, my murdered father whom I’d loved so dearly, my grandfather and grandmother and all my other relatives, my friends and especially Rachelka.

I see her as if in a dream, rising from the murk, wrapped in peasant knits, feeling her way along with hesitant steps, moving in my direction. I rub my eyes. Am I dreaming? Or is this real? Despite the dark, I recognize the figure approaching: it’s Rachelka. She hasn’t noticed me yet. Quietly, I whisper her name. She stops, listens, turns around and sees me.

“Herschele! Is that you?”

“Yes Rachelka.” I get up and run to her. We fall into one another’s arms.

“Herschele, it’s time you woke up from your childish dreams and saw reality as it is. All is misery. I’m no princess. I’m a beggar,” Rachelka says. She adds that she, her mother, younger brothers and sister are all hiding in the forest. Their entire existence hinges on her going from door to door and begging for handouts. What she manages to collect is far from being enough to feed them all, but even so it involves humiliation and mortification.

I become emotional and I tell her,

I quickly run to the nearest bakery, and in exchange for all the money I have on me, I buy three and a half loaves of bread.

“Take three loaves to your family. Eat the half loaf now, like a princess. You may not be a princess in this world, but you are still the princess of my dreams.”

I want only to encourage her, so I say,

We stood up to say our goodbyes. Our parting was difficult. Rachelka wept. Seeing her weep, I couldn’t keep it in and I too sobbed. Moved by this chance encounter and our parting, I leaned against the wrecked wall following Rachelka with my eyes as she receded, to be slowly swallowed by the dark. Her figure grew blurry and finally disappeared altogether.

Emotionally bruised, I continued on my way to my mother and sister and our band of friends.

When I came back, I told Yisrael Yaakov that the last time I was in the camp I met Yeruham, his youngest brother. Yisrael Yaakov was upset that I hadn’t brought him out on my own initiative. Now he’s asking me to go back to the camp, locate his brother, get him out and bring him here. In return, he promises to pay for me to stay at the camp for a whole week. Actually, on the way here I had decided to stay and hide out myself. It was getting colder, snow had started to fall and I was weary, so weary. I wanted to rest a while. But when Yisrael Yaakov’s offer came my way – an offer that would save a whole week’s payment, plus a second installment when I’m on the go – I decided to accept. During the night and through the next day, the cold intensified and the temperature plunged far below freezing.

The next night, when I left the hideout, I saw a shiny white blanket over everything as far as the eye could see. At first I marveled at the uniform purity of the snow, but when I stepped off the road and into a plowed field completely covered in white I realized that the snow was a serious problem. I always kept off the main roads to avoid running into Germans and other enemies. I navigated the paths going through the fields and forests, but now all those paths were hidden and it was impossible to tell where a field ended and a path began. My feet stumbled over the frozen, snow-covered furrows. I floundered and lost my footing, falling almost every step of the way. It started snowing again, heavily. The wind blew in my face, taking my breath away. After enormous effort, I reached a small pine woods. I knew that the railroad tracks I had to cross lay behind the shrubbery. The pines offered some protection against the wind, and for a while, progress was a little easier.

At the edge of the woods, just before the railroad tracks, I lay down on the snowy ground to make sure no railway sentries were nearby. While waiting, I dozed off. I shook myself awake in a panic. I knew that if I fell asleep, I’d never wake up again.

A delicious slumber is spreading through my limbs. An inner voice tempts me: “Rest just a while, and then continue on your way…” My eyes are closing. I try to fight the sweet sensation. I get up on my knees, but keel over. As I fall, my wrist whacks into a tree stump hidden by the snow. The sudden flash of intense pain wakes me up and brings me back to my senses.

I started crawling towards the train tracks. I crossed them on my belly and entered the pine woods on the other side. I stood up, leaned against a tree – I was too afraid to sit down – and after the briefest rest, resumed walking until I got to the road leading to the town of Sobolew.

Before crossing the road, I hid behind a bush to make sure the coast was clear. A group of people were approaching from the right. I crouched low and waited for them to pass. I thought I heard snatches of conversation in Yiddish. When they came right in front of me, it was obvious they were Jews. I heard them clearly and saw their clothing, or more accurately the rags in which they were wrapped. Their gait reminded me of the hopelessness of the men in the labor camp.

I came out from behind the shrub and asked them where they were going. I learned that they had lived in Sobolew until the liquidation of its ghetto. Since then, they’d been hiding in the forests and now they were headed to “the other” Sobolew ghetto.

“Since when does Sobolew have a second ghetto?” I ask. It turns out that the Germans have baited a new trap, exploiting the misery of the Jews who escaped the ghetto liquidation and fled into the forests and are now exposed to the fierce cold of a Polish winter. Using flyers posted in central locations, they have announced the reorganization of several ghettoes for Poland’s remaining Jews. The flyers promise a full pardon to anyone returning to the ghetto by a certain date. The flyers also promise full employment because many service jobs are open. Jews just have to come without delay and register. The early bird will get preferential job offers and be cared for by the Red Cross, which will provide for all their needs.

“You believe the Germans’ promises?” I try to shake some sense into them. “Can’t you see this is just a way to lure the few of us who’re still hiding out?”

The poor men answer, “We deliberated long and hard, but the cold decided for us. We have nothing to lose. We can’t make it out here. Last night, two of us froze to death. Many of us are already frostbitten and winter is only just starting. Maybe we can finally warm ourselves in the ghetto houses, recover a bit and have a chance to flee again.”

“So if they’ve promised a pardon, why are you walking at night?” I insist.

“You know those Germans,” they answer. “Two days ago, a group of Jews walked towards the second ghetto and ran into the German police. Those Nazis arranged a hunt for themselves. They set their attack dogs on them, and as the Jews started running, those bastards had a shooting contest and murdered them all.”

Oh God, I think, now they’re killing the few of us still alive. What can I do? I can’t help them. Maybe they’ll be able to escape the ghetto a second time.

I bid them farewell and turn to go my way.

Toward morning, I arrived at one of the farms I used to visit on my way to and from the labor camp. When the farmer saw me, he crossed himself and blurted out: “Lord have mercy, you’re completely frozen! Come inside and take the chill off.” I followed him into the kitchen. His wife gave me a glass of warm milk and a slice of bread. I sat down on a low stool, sipped at the milk and finished off the food. The warmth in the room enveloped me like an eiderdown and I started to nod off.

“Get into the stable,” I hear the farmer saying. “Spread clean straw in a corner. Near the harnesses you’ll find plenty of blankets. Tuck yourself in and go to sleep. You’re incapable of working today. Tomorrow morning, I have some chores for you around the farm.” At noon, I am woken up by a young girl who brings me food. I am not able to finish the meal before falling asleep again. I sleep the whole day and through the night. In the morning, I help the farmer chop firewood and stack the logs against the house.

After still another day on the farm, I left. I spent two days working for another farmer and on Saturday night I infiltrated the camp yet again.

On Sunday, I rested. Monday morning I fled with Yeruham, Yisrael Yaakov’s youngest brother, and brought him to the hideout. In the meantime, I heard that another brother of theirs, Menahem – the one who’d courted my sister – had made his way to the second ghetto in Sobolew. We sent the farmer, in whose barn we were hiding, to get him out of there. Somehow, he made contact with Menahem and brought him to the hideout. A few days later, Menahem came down with typhus. He must have become infected in the ghetto. My mother, who’d already had the disease in the ghetto and had natural immunity, cared for him throughout his illness. But, just as he was getting better, the two girls with us contracted the disease.

The farmer soon found out. Afraid of catching the sickness, he demanded we all leave his farm. It was January, during the harshest cold spell. We tallied up our finances and realized we were running out of money. What we had, wouldn’t last us into spring when we’d be able to go live in the forest.

Every time we had to give the farmer our weekly payment, the idea of going to the second ghetto was debated anew. I was flabbergasted. Some had made the suggestion even before the typhus outbreak in the hideout. It seemed the height of absurdity to me. They tried to convince me it made sense to take advantage of the time-sensitive “pardon” the Germans had decreed and go to the second ghetto. I refused to hear of it. Unfortunately, I was in the minority, perhaps the only one expressing vehement opposition.

We finally decided to ask the Polish police commander, with whom we had been in constant touch, ever since our days of trading in the ghetto, what he thought. His answer was unequivocal: one mustn’t give any credence to the Germans. This was simply another one of their traps. To me, it was obvious. But those in favor of going to the ghetto came up with another argument. They pointed to several dignitaries widely acknowledged as wise people one went to for advice, people who served as arbiters in town.

“If they decided to go to the second ghetto, they must have reliable information. This time, the ghetto may not be liquidated and we’ll lose our chance once the pardon deadline passes,” they argued, trying to get me to budge.

To this day, I cannot understand how people can be so influenced by one another, when it is so obvious that what they say bears no relation to reality. Many wandered into the new trap like a flock of sheep. To me, what was going on was as plain as the nose on my face, and I wasn’t willing to consider going to the ghetto for even a fraction of a second.

In the meantime, though, I too contracted typhus and would from time to time lose consciousness. As long as I was well I managed to overrule the idea, but once I fell ill, I realized, during my few moments of lucidity, that the majority was in favor of going to the second ghetto. The deadline of the pardon passed, leading my friends to plan on infiltrating the ghetto at night. I was burning with fever, but pleaded with them.

“You’re making a horrible mistake. We mustn’t go anywhere near there. We have to continue our struggle.” Because I was sick and often unconscious, my influence waned. The others decided to ask “our” farmer to see if it was feasible to have a wagon deliver us to an adjacent spot. From there we’d have to make it into the ghetto on foot.

But this time, fortune smiled on us. The farmer returned and told us we were too late. In the morning, the Germans had taken everyone, put them on a freight train and sent them to the east.

Knowing that we had missed the “train” relieved me. Seeing the situation, the farmer gave us a few days’ extension to find another hiding place, but demanded that we leave his farm. I was still very ill. I was running a high temperature. My sister set off on her own to look for a suitable place. Two days later, we got word from her that she had come to an arrangement with a farmer in another village who agreed to take only the four of us. My sister seemed to have gotten ill herself, which was why she wasn’t here to tell us in person. In the notes she sent, she told us how to get to the farm.

We head out that night – my mother and Menahem supporting me up on either side. I’m wearing shoes with wooden soles. I flounder in the snow with the last of my strength. The snow sticks to the soles, making my shoes heavy and wobbly. I slip and slide. My mother and Menahem can barely hold onto me, it’s snowing so hard. It’s tough to breathe, especially for me, because of my high fever and because the illness has weakened my body. The road seems to last forever.

A few hours later, we get to the farm where I’d brought my mother after her stay in the forest. We see that the light is still burning in their window and we go in to get out of the cold. The typhus has made my mouth slack and even though I’m aware of it I can’t speak at my usual pace. I want to hide the fact that I’m sick and seize control of my muscles. When I walk into the house I practically yell “Good evening!” Everyone is startled, but they are such kind people, they ignore my boorish manner. They offer us hot tea. We rest and thaw our limbs for a while and then continue to the new hideout my sister has found.

A few days later my fever broke and I started to get well, but my sister only got worse. She was unconscious most of the time, delirious, speaking nonsense and shouting at random. We were constantly afraid that someone might hear her and discover our hiding place. We lay inside what looked like a kennel covered with sheaves of hay inside a barn. From time to time, we’d sneak outdoors, scoop up some snow, wrap it in some cloth and put it on her head to reduce her fever. Her temperature raged. She was so hot we were afraid she would die.

Our mother didn’t despair. In the evening, she ran into town and banged on the door of the only non-Jewish doctor there, a woman who had moved there soon after the liquidation of the ghetto. The doctor had already retired for the night, but when she saw my mother sobbing and pleading with her to help save her daughter, she took pity. Despite the late hour and the German occupation law forbidding non-Jews from helping Jews, the doctor got dressed, and risking her life, went to the pharmacy. She woke up the pharmacist, bought drugs and gave them to my mother. She also instructed her on how to administer them and refused payment of any kind.

The medicine did its job. Immediately after receiving the first dose, we saw some relief. Two days later, the worst was over and my sister was on the mend.

Winter still had its fierce grip on the land and our cash reserves continued to dwindle. The money left was not enough to pay the weekly fee agreed on with the farmer. We knew we had to hang in there for at least another month, until March. Then the ground would thaw and we’d be able to dig a forest bunker. But in the meantime, there was February to survive. A new idea occurred to us: to approach the owner of a mud hut located at the edge of town, right next to the forest. It was obvious that the people who lived there were very poor, for there were no other mud houses in the vicinity. We hoped they might be happy with a small payment for the month we had to survive until spring came.

My sister, with her fluent Polish and rare abilities of persuasion, was still weak from her bout with typhus, and could therefore not cover the distance to the mud house. Because we felt that she had the best chance of making the deal, and this was the last chance for us, Menahem and I linked our wrists to create a seat for her, carrying her the many miles to town. Every so often, we stopped to rest and then pressed on until we reached our destination.

It worked. The owner of the hut – a builder by trade – was unemployed through the winter. The sum my sister offered was enough to support him until spring. The same evening, we carried my sister back with us to our kennel hideout. Towards the end of the week all of us moved to our new place and settled into the loft.

That year, winter hung on longer than usual. By the end of February, it was still freezing outside. To finance our hiding for at least another week, we removed the duvet cover from the only blanket we still possessed. In the evening, my sister went into town to sell the cover. After exposing herself to the danger of being seen in public, she managed to sell it, earning a reasonable sum that could pay for another week of indoor lodging. She came back happy with her success. Wanting to show us the money she made, she dug her hand into her pocket for the bills. It came away empty. Mortified by the loss, she walked all the way back to town to look for the cash, but in vain. This was a disastrous development. The last money we had was now gone. I was completely honest with the hut-owner and explained our predicament. Seeing our terror, he had mercy on us and agreed to keep us on another week free of charge.

Fortunately for us, the weather that week suddenly changed. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds. The air grew warmer. The snow started melting and spring scents permeated the air. One night at the end of that week, we went into the forest equipped with spades, a saw, an ax and some other tools we borrowed from our host.

We located a hillock in which we started to dig a pit, the beginning of our underground bunker. It was still cold outdoors, but we didn’t feel it. The hard work made the blood flow fast in our veins; not only weren’t we cold, we actually started to sweat from the effort. We dug and dug. Using buckets, we removed some of the earth and dumped it in the lake at the foot of the hill to erase all signs of the fresh dig. We also dug up seven or eight young pines to replant on the bunker’s roof.

The pit we dug was about four meters wide, five meters long and three meters deep. Some distance away – so as to leave the immediate vicinity looking undisturbed – we chopped down large trees we used to stabilize the walls and support the ceiling. We covered the ceiling with a thick layer of earth we’d dug out, and topped it all by replanting the saplings we’d dug up. We camouflaged our activity with plantings and pine needles and covered the entrance to the bunker with a shrub. The ladder for climbing down into the bunker was attached to the shrub’s roots so that when the ladder was pulled down on the inside, the shrub concealed the opening.

The bunker was camouflaged so well, that at first, even we found it hard to find. Inside, we built wooden sleeping bunks. All of us slept under our single blanket. Oddly enough, inside the bunker, below the ground, it was relatively warm and we didn’t suffer from cold. We used the bunker only at night. During the day, we sat outdoors on low ground among deciduous trees and thick undergrowth. These spots were unsuitable for a bunker because the water-table was too high. We found that out soon after we tried digging there – but they were perfect for lounging about during the day. Thanks to the dense vegetation, we were safe from prying eyes.

One could say that life in the forest was fairly pleasant and free. The first sunrays of spring pierced the young pines’ branches and needles. We breathed fresh air and inhaled the perfume of spring flowers. From time to time, one of us had to leave the forest and meet with peasants in the surrounding villages. They’d give us skeins of wool for us to knit; we were paid for these garments with food. We also had to come to town to buy things like: salt, matches, razor blades and other necessities. The roads were dangerous. We tried moving about at night or just before dawn when traffic was sparse because the darkness made it difficult to distinguish Jew from non-Jew.

One morning, my sister and I set off for one of the surrounding villages. It is early morning, before sunrise. We leave the forest in a heavy fog. We walk through the fields and approach the village, but the mist has reduced visibility. The village homes look like dark smudges floating on clouds. Now we’re far from the forest and can see figures outside the homes, but because of the fog we can’t tell if they’re Germans or Poles. The road we’re on leads directly into the village; we can go neither left nor right. We have no choice, but to turn on our heels and head back to the forest. It seems that the people we saw were waiting for us. When they saw us turning around, they motioned to us to come closer. We obviously have no intention of obeying. On the contrary – we’re walking faster. When we realize that they are still calling for us to stop, we start running, making a beeline through the fields to the shelter of the trees. We run, fall, get up and continue running, until we reach the forest. But we didn’t stop running. My sister is holding a sack with an empty bottle for the food we’re supposed to get for our knitting. The sack is flying around and the bottle keeps smacking my sister in the back.

I pant, “Drop the sack. It’ll be easier to run.”

But my sister refuses. “Where would we get another?” she says, never breaking stride. When the sack catches on a branch, she stops for a moment, untangles its, wraps the sack around the bottle, tucks it in under an arm, and hurries on.

Deep in the forest, we sat down to rest and analyze the situation.

“Why didn’t they shoot?” we wondered. Despite the fog, we had clearly seen the rifles slung over their backs. Maybe they weren’t German after all. Maybe we just thought they were and fled for nothing and tired ourselves out for no good reason.

We decided to go back to our bunker. We waited several days before approaching the village again. The villagers informed us that on the morning we’d approached, the village had in fact been surrounded by Germans. They were there to round up teens for forced labor in Germany. That was probably why they hadn’t shot us – to avoid making a commotion that would have alerted the village. The Germans succeeded in trapping several of the teens in the village.

I was often forced to go back to our town to do some basic shopping. At first I always visited the ghetto and went down into the cellar where Rachelka and her family had hidden. In the interim, non-Jews had started to populate the ghetto, so it became more difficult to sneak in unnoticed. I had to sneak in under the cover of darkness. Unfortunately, I found nothing. No message, information, signal or sign. No hint at all. Everything was always exactly as before. Every time I went there, with the spark of hope flaring, I hoped that I would discover something, but disappointment always waited. I climb down the stairs with a heavy heart. The stink of mildew and fungus pervades. I light a candle and look around. Nothing’s changed. There’s no sign of life from Rachelka.

I had been on my way to our town and was lying down on a stream bank waiting for dark. I’m well hidden among bushes. I am tracking the setting sun, staring at the changing colors of the sky, the blue turning pink and red. The sun sets slowly. It had dropped behind the horizon. Twilight made way to evening and the first stars appear above. I am still waiting for dark to fully envelop my surroundings to allow me to enter the town unnoticed. Between the branches, my eyes follow passersby entering and leaving town, as they follow the winding path on the other side of the stream and then disappear from sight.

I see the figure of a young woman. She looks familiar. She’s approaching me on the path. I try to place her. She definitely reminds me of someone, but it’s not Rachelka. Rachelka is shorter, and her walk isn’t the same. So who is she? Suddenly it hits me. It’s Zlatke, of course! My counselor from the Zionist youth movement! Zlatke Koshkevitz. She’s tall, beautiful and charming, two or three years older than me. She was a member of the older group in the movement and served as the counselor of my group.

I’m still hiding behind the bushes and waiting for her to come closer. When I am absolutely sure that this is really Zlatke, I call out her name. She stops for a moment, turns her head and continues to walk. I call her name again, this time a little louder, and identify myself.

This time she stops and repeats my name, “Herschele, is that you?”

“Yes, Zlatke, wait up.”

I take my shoes off, cross the stream, and approach. Both of us are excited and happy to see one another, but I can’t speak. Moved by the encounter, I don’t know where to begin. She suggests we get off the path and leads me to a spot where small underbrush grows on that bank.

“Let’s sit down behind the trees. We can talk for a few minutes.”

We sit down and Zlatke starts telling me how she managed to escape the town’s ghetto at the very last minute. In the forest, she met some Jews and together they staggered from one location to another, pursued by robbers and other thugs.

“Somehow, we managed to survive until winter,” she said. “But when the cold came, we had no proper shelter or warm clothing – we’d been robbed of virtually everything – and were at risk of dying from exposure. When the flyers announcing that the second ghetto went up, my group grasped at the chance, just like a drowning person will grab at even a knife. But the ghetto offered barely any improvement over life in the forest. The Germans set aside just a few houses to take in the wounded survivors. Dozens of people were stuffed into every room. At night, the floor was completely covered by bodies. Some had typhus and others had frostbite, blood poisoning and gangrene from the untreated frostbite. They agonized in horrendous pain. The filth and stench were unbearable. Everyone was depressed and despairing. Most of us waited to be taken away, no matter the destination. The ‘deliverance’ wasn’t long in coming. One gray winter morning, the Germans surrounded the second ghetto, moved everyone to the train station and shoved us all into cargo cars. I can’t even describe how crowded it was or how cruel the soldiers were. After they slammed the doors shut, it was impossible to breathe. Despite the winter, everyone inside was drenched in sweat. The weak and the ill started choking to death. We stacked the dead one on top of the other, so there was a little bit more room. Those still alive started undressing. It was clear that this isn’t how people are moved to a labor camp. We all understood that the flyers were nothing but bald-faced lies and that the end was near.

“But despite the suffering and despair, I couldn’t accept that I was doomed,” Zlatke continued. “The will to live, to save myself at whatever cost, had returned. First I had to get out of that train car. One guy managed to loosen the barbed wire covering the opening. He pushed himself out and jumped from the moving train. Others behind him followed. We couldn’t see what became of them. From time to time we heard shots being fired by the Germans and their collaborators guarding the train.

“I was also getting ready to jump. I put on all my clothes again and went up to the opening. Several people heaved me up and supported me. Now my upper body was sticking out the window. For a long moment I just hung there, swaying back and forth. I was still gripping the frame of the opening, and a fierce wind was pushing me in away from the train’s direction. People inside the car were saying that I had to jump in the direction of the train so as not to fall under the wheels. I braced my feet against the side of the car, pushed myself in the train’s direction and let go of the frame. I fell and rolled on the snow. The impact was so intense that I blacked out. When I came to, I couldn’t move, and my left arm was in agony. I tried to move my hand, but the pain was paralyzing. My arm was clearly broken. After several attempts, and despite the throbbing pain, I managed to get on my knees and then to my feet. I started walking parallel to the tracks so as not to lose my way. An hour or so later, two guys who’d also jumped from the same train overtook me. They supported me and helped me stagger onward. After much hardship, we came back to this area. Now we’re living together in a bunker in the forest.”

Unfortunately, her arm had not set properly and she still had difficulty moving it. By now it was late and we had to say goodbye. I asked her about Rachelka and her family, if she’d run into them or heard anything about them.

“Yes,” said Zlatke, “Rachelka was with me in the same train car. She jumped before I did. She may be in a village near Deblin. She told me she had the address of an old couple that was willing to take her in and that she might stay with them to recover before coming back to this area.”

Zlatke then said she had to run an errand into town before it was too late.

“Let’s go back to the forest together. We’ll wait for one another right here so we can talk some more. It may be the last time we see one another. We may never get another chance,” she said sadly.

Zlatke was swallowed by the dark descending on the houses on outskirts of the town while I stood up to start walking. But I really didn’t want to go. I was too excited. Rachelka was alive! I sat down again behind the trees and stared at the star-studded sky. My thoughts flitted from Rachelka to Zlatke and from Zlatke to Rachelka. I remembered the good old days before the war.

It’s the eve of Lag Ba’omer [1]. I’m in the forest. Zlatke’s age-group from the Zionist youth movement is sitting around the bonfire some distance from me. We, the younger group, were not allowed to attend, but I – without permission – have snuck in after the older kids. I’m watching the writhing flames. Flying sparks decorate the treetops around the little bit of visible sky. The singing is growing more spirited. I’m dying to go up to them and join in the merriment. I take a few cautious steps at a time, until Zlatke, my counselor, sees me.

She calls out to me, asking: “Won’t they be worried about you at home?”

I convince her that everything is fine and that I’ve let my parents know that I’ll be late. She lets me sit down next to her. Then all the kids link arms – together with me – and sway left and right in time to the song. I’m ecstatic, entranced by it all: the sight of the fire licking the air and the shadows moving back and forth. I’m enchanted. The group gets up to dance the hora [2] around the bonfire. I dance too. Afterwards, some of the kids bake potatoes in the fire. Zlatke and another girl sing Hebrew folksongs, their voices rising with the flames. More logs are added to the fire, which quickly roars higher than before. Smoke, adorned with a crown of sparks, curled upward. The song rises to the heavens and is answered by the forest. It felt as if my heart was too small to contain all the joy.

Now I tilt my head back to look at the sky and ask myself, “Where are they now? Where did they all go?” It’s hard to accept the idea that I will never see them again. And Rachelka – is she really still alive? Maybe she is also sitting somewhere, looking at the sky, wondering about me. I feel wretched. I decide not to go into town. Whatever errands I have can wait. Tonight, I’m going to commune with my memories. I close my eyes and try to call up the vision of the Lag Ba’omer celebrants. One by one, I see them around the bonfire; I listen to their singing and the echoes of their laughter blending with the rustle of the treetops above. I again experience that unforgettable feeling; the soft breeze carries the melody from long ago and hums it in my ear.

An hour or so later, Zlatke returned and we picked up where we left off. She told me of the horrific losses in Rachleka’s family. They had come to the second ghetto with Rachelka ill with typhus, her brother Shayele, unconscious from pain. His toes were gangrenous from the frostbite he suffered in the forest and now he had blood poisoning. Raizele, their younger sister, was the only one left capable of fending for the family: she would periodically infiltrate the Aryan side and beg for food. A few days before the second ghetto was liquidated, she was caught on the other side and shot dead on the spot. Rachelka was on the mend, but Shayele died in unspeakable agony inside the ghetto. Rachelka’s mother suffocated to death in the train car right in front of her.

“So that’s what happened to Rachelka and her family,” Zlatke says, her voice breaking.

She then remembers an acquaintance we have in common, Simha Shneidleder.

“He came to the second ghetto with one thing in mind: to avenge the murder of his daughter and her fiancé,” she says with something close to reverence. “Before the liquidation of the Łaskarzew ghetto, Simha had deposited money and valuables to be held with a peasant friend for his daughter and her fiancé. The young couple had fled there as soon as it was clear the ghetto would be liquidated. Simha himself somehow managed to flee and hide in the forest. One day he decided to visit his daughter, but when he arrived at his so-called friend’s house, neither she nor her fiancé are there. The peasant came up with all sorts of excuses for their absence, that made Simha suspect his ‘friend’ had murdered them. When Simha demanded to see the couple, the ‘friend’ set a future date on the pretext that he first had to inform his brother in a neighboring village, as the couple was hiding on his farm.

On the appointed day, Simha came back, and the ‘friend’ started leading him through the forest, ostensibly to go to his brother’s place. But at a certain point, he pulled out a pistol and aimed it at Simha, meaning to kill him as well. There must have been something wrong with the weapon. The first shot hit Simha in the shoulder, but it wouldn’t fire again, giving Simha time to flee. When he came to the second ghetto, he went to the German police and submitted a complaint, because according to the laws of occupation, it was a capital offense to possess a firearm. The Germans executed anyone with a gun on the spot, without a trial. As soon as Simha made the complaint, the Germans arrested the peasant and ordered him to dig up the bodies. They took his gun away and shot him right then and there. That’s how Simha, in the last days of his life, managed to avenge the death of his daughter and her fiancé. He, of course, was packed into the train wagon with all the other Jews when the ghetto was liquidated never to return.”

After Zlatke said her goodbyes and went on her way, I remained under the gloomy pall of her stories. Instead of getting up, I lay down on the grass with my head cradled in my hands, and looked up at the sky. A full moon sailed easily among translucent clouds draping the heavens. Nothing had changed in the world; only the grotesque mental images in my mind, flickering one after the other, as if from a projector, were new. I felt myself sinking lower and lower.

The sorrow and agony Rachelka had experienced... How awful to stand there, see the anguish of your family and their horrible death, without being able to save even one beloved life. Is she still alive? Did she reach her destination? She must have been so weak after the typhus. How will I ever know? I have to be patient and wait for the day when this all ends. I must stop looking for her and asking about her, lest I cause her any harm. All I can do is wait and hope for the best.

A few days later, a sudden rain surprised me on my way to town and brought me to the house of Zushka the washerwoman. A poor, old Christian woman, she lived alone in a tiny house next to the stream. A strong wind had blown in black clouds that rapidly covered the sky. The rain caught me out in the open, with nowhere to take cover. The wind and rain lashed my face making it difficult to walk. Very soon I was soaked to the skin. My clothes were dripping and my shoes filled with mud. Every few steps I had to stop for a breather. I would turn my back to the wind, take several deep breaths, and then continue. It had become very dark and visibility was down to about four meters. There was no point in stopping because the sky was black to the horizon and it seemed unlikely the rain would end any time soon. I pick my way carefully so as not to slip in the sticky mud until I reach the bank of the stream at the edge of town. The stream is rushing and foaming. I don’t bother taking my shoes off and cross the stream as I am. The bank on the other side is steep, so I continue walking in the water looking for an easier spot to clamber up. When I see some bushes on the shore, I grab them and hoist myself out of the water.

From there, I head to Zushka’s house. The lonely old woman has a good heart. I’ve visited her before, always in distress. When I’m freezing or wet, I allow myself to knock at her door to warm up. I don’t do it often because I don’t want to disturb her more than I have to. Zushka usually welcomes visitors gladly and tries to help as much as she can, or at least offer some words of encouragement or consolation. This time, while I’m still standing in her doorway, she beckons me to approach.

“What news I have!” she says. “Jews are fighting! The Warsaw ghetto is in flames!” Zushka invites me in to sit next to her tin stove. Its sides are hot and the pleasant warmth is diffused around the room. She draws up a stool and sits down to shake the coals around and add kindling.

“The Jews in the Warsaw ghetto started defending themselves a few days ago,” Zushka goes on. “My neighbor – she smuggles food into Warsaw – told me the ghetto is in flames. The Germans have suffered heavy losses. They can’t go in there. Every time they near the ghetto, they meet fierce resistance. The defenders have turned everything imaginable into weapons. The Germans are being forced back and are abandoning their dead and wounded. The non-Jews living near the ghetto say that the battle is being fought from house to house and that German ambulances are constantly going in and out.”

Sorrow and pride vie within me. I’m sad, knowing how bitter the end will be. A handful of people cannot stand up against the military might of the German war machine in the long haul. On the other hand, I am proud that despite the brutal oppression, degradation and suffering, the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto have not despaired. Just within the last few days, the heroism of old has returned to our people. What a marvel: how did the Warsaw Jews put their hands on weapons? Where did they get the strength and the courage to muster the last of their strength to seek revenge and die valiantly?! This supreme act of heroism redeems their honor and the honor of our people. They are realizing the dream of tens of thousands of those who’ve been tortured to death and those who are still living, but lack the strength and the means to seek vengeance of the Nazi beast. I am deeply moved.

I leave Zushka’s house, straighten my back, lift my head, look up at the sky and let my lips give thanks. A single star winks at me, and in my mind, it becomes my ner tamid [3] , honoring those who have fallen in battle. The star glitters among the clouds and casts its light over the thick darkness. The rain has stopped. I continue walking down the alleyways in town, Zushka’s words echoing in my mind like a mantra: “ Jews are fighting! The Warsaw ghetto is in flames.” I envision the Jewish fighters, bearing the standard of the people’s courage. They stand amidst the flames, blue and white flags wave in the light of day.

I am so riveted by my own vision that I fail to take the usual precautions. Suddenly my breathing is constricted and I feel a club landing on my back. I’m confused. I look up and see that I’ve been caught by a Polish policeman. I don’t recognize him.

“You little Jew boy, you can’t sneak around like a cockroach in the night on my watch!”

As the vision of the fighting Jews of Warsaw is still fresh in my mind, I answer him by yelling:

“Jews are fighting! By the light of day! Revenge will soon be ours!” The policeman is taken aback. His chokehold loosens. I exploit the moment, slip out of his grasp and disappear.

Later on, I learned that that policeman was brought in by the Gestapo to join the local Polish force. Because he had arrived after the liquidation of the ghetto, none of us knew him. He was an anti-Semite through and through, a loyal collaborator and informant of the Germans. He excelled in viciousness. Some weeks later, he caught Zlatke. She fought back, but couldn’t overcome him. A bullet from his gun put an end to her young life.

The Warsaw ghetto buildings were in flames and collapsing. The revolt was suppressed. The survivors hiding in the ruins or in underground bunkers were eventually discovered by the Germans, rounded up and loaded onto cattle cars. Their destiny was no different from that which befell their compatriots who had been rounded up in every earlier Aktion [4]. All were sent to the death camps.

On one such transport, the people being sent to their deaths managed to break open the car they were in. Dozens jumped from the moving train and scattered in my town’s surroundings. Thugs and underworld criminals began a renewed hunt for these survivors. They didn’t bother with the handful of surviving Jews from Łaskarzew as they had already robbed us of everything after the ghetto was emptied.

During the ghetto’s liquidation, the Polish police had been supportive of the Germans, but passive. Now, however, they participated in the hunt for survivors. A rumor started saying that the Warsaw ghetto Jews were rich and carrying money, gold and jewelry, and the police wanted their share. Unfortunately for those who escaped the train, the hunters didn’t just rob them. After taking all they could, they murdered their victims. They couldn’t risk leaving anyone alive to demand justice in the future.

The Polish police eventually concluded that they also had to eliminate the town’s remaining Jews, as they could also, one day, seek to avenge the blood of their brothers and sisters and testify against them. And so they started their hunt for us too. Fortunately for us, we found out about it ahead of time. We heard a rumor that Polish police were seen lying in ambush precisely where we used to pass going in and out of town. As if that wasn’t enough, broadsheets were disseminated by the Polish fascist underground, Armia Karjowa, with venomous anti-Jewish incitement, replete with broad hints that it was time to eliminate the few who had not yet perished.

Within a day, all roads were closed to us. The main roads were used by the Germans. The less traveled roads were used by the partisans and anti-Semitic underground movements. The Polish police lay in wait everywhere. Even sitting in the forest became risky. Our dearest wish since coming into the forest had been to organize ourselves into a fighting underground or to join another group of partisans. That dream was now over. The attempts we had made to get weapons from the people around us had come to nothing. The hope of joining a partisan group was also off the table, as we had learned that all the partisans in our part of the country were fascists. In addition to fighting the Germans and the Russians, the partisans stated objective was to eliminate every Jew still living in the area. So far their activity had been organizational Within a day, all roads were closed to us. The main roads were used by the Germans. The less traveled roads were used by the partisans and anti-Semitic underground movements. The Polish police lay in wait everywhere. Even sitting in the forest became risky. Our dearest wish since coming into the forest had been to organize ourselves into a fighting underground or to join another group of partisans. That dream was now over. The attempts we had made to get weapons from the people around us had come to nothing. The hope of joining a partisan group was also off the table, as we had learned that all the partisans in our part of the country were fascists. In addition to fighting the Germans and the Russians, the partisans stated objective was to eliminate every Jew still living in the area. So far their activity had been organizational only, but now they were starting to train in the forests, with their first operations consisting of murdering Jews.

We had to make sure to camouflage ourselves with great care, and to curtail our movements. As we were making our living by knitting, using wool we got from the nearby peasants, we had no choice, but occasionally, to go to the villages to get more wool, turn in our handiwork and receive the food we needed to survive in return.

Every such trip brought fear that one of the young people in the houses we visited was a member of the underground. Would they ambush us at the side of the road, catch us and kill us some day? We were hoping to be able to go back and live with the owner of the hut when we had the means to do so.

Menahem managed to convince two peasants to enter into a leather tanning partnership with us. He knew the process from having worked in his father’s leather tannery before the war. After the occupation, the industry had been taken over by the Germans and every piece of processed leather was worth a fortune. Menahem made a deal with the peasants: they would buy raw hides and materials, he would process the hides and they would divide the finished goods between them. Half of it would stay with us. We hoped that, with the proceeds from selling the goods, we’d be able to pay the owner of the hut for lodging and food.

We started hoarding the food we were getting in return for the knitting. We planned to continue the leather processing in an underground hiding place we’d set up next to the hut. We put the plan into action. We managed to survive in the forest until we finished processing the leather and selling much of it. With the first money we earned from its sale, we returned to the owner of the hut and stayed in his loft until the underground bunker was ready.

We worked on our new hiding place only at night, by moonlight. We covered the fresh soil we exposed and the new hole in the ground with branches we chopped off trees in the forest near the hut. The wood would eventually turn into support beams for the walls and ceiling. At night, we moved the branches aside and continued our work.

About ten meters from the hut, there was a well the owner had dug for his family. The well was square and built of wood. Each side was about a meter wide and some seven meters deep, reaching about a meter underneath the lowest waterline of the hot summer months. In winter, the waterline rose, of course, but never reached the lip of the well. We were digging our hideout between ground level and the highest waterline. The posts placed in the corners of the well, which reached its bottom, and the horizontal wooden boards, which connected the posts, were installed to prevent a cave-in. At a depth of almost four meters down the well, we removed four of the boards, joined them with studs on the side facing the soil and placed the boards back at the well’s side. To the naked eye, these boards were no different than any of the other boards lining the well. But these boards were our gateway into the hidey-hole, dug right next to it. To climb up and down from the hideout, we joined stringers between two of the four corner posts. Any stranger looking down would think this was a ladder meant to help in cleaning the well bottom; however, we used the ladder to access our secret gateway. When given a prearranged code, we would open the entranceway from the inside.

We spent some ten nights building the underground room. It measured about six by six meters and was over two meters high. We covered the ceiling with almost a meter of dirt and used the rest of the dirt to make orderly vegetable garden beds on top. From within the room, we dug a tunnel to the outhouse in the yard. The floor of the outhouse was locked from beneath, inside our tunnel. If someone happened to be in the outhouse, the bolt jammed, making it impossible to swing the trapdoor open. It was possible to open the bolt only when the outhouse was empty, whereupon one could climb up to use the outhouse or go outdoors without arousing the neighbors’ suspicions. The hut was fairly far from the other houses in the neighborhood and from that distance it was impossible to identify anyone in the yard.

Inside the room, we built a sleeping bunk and padded it with straw. That’s where we slept by night and rested by day. The food was usually cooked by the hut owner’s wife. She would place the pot inside an empty bucket and hang the bucket on a nail hammered into the pole that was cranked to draw water. She’d lower the bucket into the well and swing it three times against the room’s entranceway, our code to move the boards and take the pot out. Now that the bucket was empty, she’d lower it all the way into the well, fill it with water and return to her hut.

When the hideout and all the other preparations were complete, we were so exhausted by the effort – and probably also by the tensions that had built up during the months we’d spent in the forests – we slept almost around the clock for the next month. The peasant woman would wake us up to eat and then immediately after the meal we’d pass out again.

We also set the room up to serve as our future leather workshop. Menahem had to finish processing the hides he’d started working on before with his new business partners. He stayed with them, on and off, until the pieces were finished. From time to time, one of us would leave our hideout and meet up with our non-Jewish contact person. He bought the raw hides and the materials for tanning them. At first we’d go to his house, but realized it was too dangerous. After that, we met at the Jewish cemetery in the forest.

One drizzly evening, I’m lying in a pit in the cemetery, covered with branches, listening to the moaning wind and the rustling treetops while waiting for my contact person to show up. Every once in a while, I lift my head to look around and see if anyone has entered the cemetery.

The shadows of the trees moving in the wind create the illusion that I am surrounded by a large gathering of weeping souls, bemoaning the bitter fate and destruction of the Jewish people. The bones of grownups and little children are strewn among the graves and headstones. These were the Jews whose only sin was to fight for their lives. Caught by the Germans, they were brought here and shot to death. No one even bothered to bury them. The bones seem to move back and forth, their howls rising heavenward with the wind. My heart weeps and I wonder why. Why was it decreed that our people be destroyed and wiped off the face of the earth? There’s no answer. My soul shrinks within me and my body shrinks into the pit. I fall asleep. I’m visited by terrorizing dreams. I twist and turn in pain, until our contact arrives and wakens me from my nightmare. He’s here and he has a new order. While he’s saved me from a terrifying dream, I awaken into a no less terrifying reality, one in which I must continue to struggle for life.

Within our hideaway, life was relatively bearable and safe, but the world around us grew more dangerous every day. The defeat of the German army on the Russian front and its retreat gave us hope. We started to believe we would live to see the Germans’ complete downfall. The local partisans also ramped up their activities. Every evening, we’d hear shots fired in every part of the forest around us.

Menahem Yisrael’s brother, Yaakov Shalit, his wife, two-year old daughter and several other Jews who’d survived in the forest with them were murdered by these bands of partisans. Yisrael Yaakov’s son, seven-year old Danek, managed to escape and survive on his own for about two months. When we found out, we located him and brought him to our bunker.

To fight the partisans, the Germans brought Ukrainian collaborators to town. They were told to fight the partisans and murder Jews. At first they extended the curfew from twilight to sunrise. This was a blow to us, as we could no longer go out in the evening. Any young man wandering around was suspect and would be stopped and checked out.

Because women were generally less suspect, my sister assumed most of the risk. Every exit from our safe space entailed an existential danger, but there was no choice. She had to sell the processed leather and collect our money. There was always the risk that one of the debtors would turn her in and save himself payment for the goods. There was also the risk that she’d run into enemies on the road or in one of the houses she had to visit. We had chosen our non-Jewish contacts with care, but they could never be fully trusted. There was no shortage of treachery by people considered trustworthy. On one of her outings, my sister learned that the fact of our existence was known to Ukrainian collaborators who asked several peasants about us. To steer them away from us, we started a rumor that we’d been murdered. At the country fair, the villagers we did business with made a point of telling others that they’d seen our bodies in one of the forests outside of town.

In the meantime, Menahem finished processing the leather over at the peasants’ place. He received his share of the finished goods and brought them to our hiding place. Unfortunately, he’d been unable to bring the thirty kilos of wheat he was paid for the work. It was too heavy to carry in addition to the leather. The wheat was left in a sack in the peasants’ unlocked shed. There was a risk that the wheat might get stolen. Having no choice, and despite the danger, I decided to go and get the grain myself. We simply couldn’t afford to lose such a treasure.

On the way there and back, I had to go through town. I opted to cross the Polish para-military shooting range, figuring that the ramparts would shield me from sight. Besides, there were rumors that the ghosts of the Jews murdered there hovered nearby. Residents were now too afraid to go there at night. I therefore believed that my chances of running into someone, especially during curfew, were low.

I chose a cold winter night to go. A blizzard was raging. Everything was covered in white. The wind blew snowflakes from the sky to the ground and from the ground to the sky, creating a vortex sharply reducing visibility. It was difficult to walk without getting lost, but I drew solace from the assumption that I could probably not be seen either. The way back was even tougher, because this time I was carrying the heavy bag of wheat. It hung across my shoulder, half dangling in front and half in back. I could barely lift it. I was breathing heavily, but I didn’t dare put the sack down and rest. I was malnourished and weak and I was afraid that if I laid the sack down I’d never be able to hoist it up on my shoulder again.

My movements were excruciatingly slow. I staggered through the snow without noticing that I had blundered into a rose bed. My trousers caught on some thorns, so I bent down – the grain sack still across my shoulder – to pull the fabric free. I was completely absorbed in the task when, at a certain point, I lifted my head. There, right in front of me, a black shadow stood out against the whiteness of the snow-covered rampart. An electric jolt shot through my body, from head to toe. I was covered in cold sweat. I was stuck in place, completely paralyzed, unable to move as much as a finger. I remained standing there for several seconds until I collected my wits and realized that I was looking at the door of the shed that was built into the rampart.

Once the shock had worn off, I felt that unless I rested I had no chance of continuing. I would most certainly not have the strength to climb the rampart at the edge of the training grounds with the heavy load on my back. I walked over to the door. It was open. The shed, which provided shelter to the shooting instructor during training, was small – around two by three meters. I slid the sack off my shoulder, put it on the floor and sat down on it to rest. Inside the shed, I was protected from the blizzard still going strong. I was cold. I could feel my toes starting to burn. I got up and started jumping up and down. I was afraid to sit down again, lest I fall asleep and freeze to death.

After some time, I opened the door and looked out. The blizzard seemed to be weakening and I had the feeling it would soon be clear again. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time. I had to get to our hideout before dawn. I lifted the sack with a great deal of difficulty and continued on my way.

When I got to our safe space, I peeled off my snow-covered clothing, climbed up on the sleeping plank and wedged myself between my mother and my sister. This, I thought as the warmth enveloped my body, was paradise. My eyelids fluttered once or twice. A few seconds later I was sound asleep.

We managed to save some money from the processed leather and continued living in our underground room in relative peace and quiet. Along with the food supplied by the woman who owned the hut with her husband, we also asked her to get us a newspaper. We read it daily and learned of the Allies’ advance through Italy and of the “planned tactical retreats” of the German army on the Russian front. We didn’t delve deeply into the reasons for the retreat; what was important was the retreat itself and the fact that the end to this nightmare was coming closer. We managed to procure an atlas. We marked the front line and measured its distance from our town. It was still far away, but it was moving closer with every passing day. Sometimes we’d get caught up in a conversation about the day of liberation and our move to the land of Israel. It was obvious to us all that we wouldn’t stay in the diaspora. We were determined never again to be exposed to anti-Semitism, humiliation and persecution of the kind inflicted on us and preceding generations. We dared dream of freedom and spoke to one another about the life of joy we’d have as a free people in our own land.

As the frontline neared, we started hearing the distant thuds of heavy artillery. But, as luck would have it, precisely when our delivery from this nightmare seemed close enough to touch, something happened that jeopardized us all and almost cost us our lives. A young boy who lived nearby and who used to play with our landlords’ children, noticed one day that the woman was lowering food into the well. Naturally, he got curious and started asking uncomfortable questions. We panicked. After thinking that our deliverance was near, to realize we might not live to be saved. It was just too cruel. The owner tried to distract the child, telling him that his wife lowered the food into the well to chill it, but that the pot fell out. The boy didn’t believe it. Instead, he started hanging around the yard every day to poke about.

The mental and emotional equilibrium we had achieved in our secret room was fragile to begin with. Now it cracked. We were panic-stricken at the thought that the neighbors would start rumors that would eventually lead to our discovery. We were impatient to look for a different hiding spot. My sister and I went out in the middle of the night and wandered about until dawn paying visits to a number of acquaintances we’d made over the years. But it was all in vain. We found nobody willing to hide us. The fear the Germans and their collaborators had managed to instill, the venomous propaganda and the persecution of the few remaining Jews by the fascist Polish underground had done their work and denied us any chance that someone would be willing to help us.

Our first stop that night was with a fellow who lived in a single-family home at the edge of the other side of town. We tried to tempt him with hefty weekly payments from the profits of the leather we would process at his place, but he was scared. He wanted nothing to do with us. Refusing outright to listen anymore, he rushed us out of his house. We went to our second prospect, but here the wife was adamantly against it. We also realized that we’d been wrong about him: a drunkard, he was incapable of keeping a secret and besides, he starting groping my sister. We quickly left, intending to head for a peasant acquaintance’s farm, but there we had a nasty surprise: that night, he was hosting an Armia Krajowa gathering for the village youth. Dozens of young teenagers, girls and boys, were sitting in his granary discussing partisan business. The farmer’s daughter, seeing us through the window, signaled to us that we needed to leave. But several of those present had already seen us. We heard demonic laughter from the courtyard, snatches of a shouting match and the sound of scuffling between the peasant’s daughter and the other youths. It didn’t take us long to realize what was happening. We dashed into a tract of young birches nearby. We continued into a plowed field where we lay down in a trench between two furrows and covered ourselves with the loose soil. Soon thereafter, flashes of light in the trees told us that the search was on. Then we heard horses galloping past. By the full moon, we could clearly see several youngsters riding hard into town. Every so often they’d rein in their horses and shine their flashlights into the fields and behind the roadway shrubs. They seem to have decided that they’d lost their quarry because they finally made an about-face and returned to the village. After the commotion had died down, my sister and I picked our way through the fields skirting the town.

We made it back to our hideaway without the owner of the hut learning of our night’s adventures. After we rested and calmed down, we discussed the situation again. We concluded that in our current circumstances, the risk of looking for different shelter was inestimably greater than the risk of staying put. We decided to suggest to the owner that we dig another underground space on the other side of the hut so that he and his wife would be able to feed us without having to go into the yard. We could do nothing, but hope that, given time, the neighbors’ son would forget what he’d seen.

Having decided on a course of action and receiving our landlord’s consent, we started preparing our new hideaway the very next night. So as not to lose any more time, we worked continuously through the next few nights until the new space was ready. It was entered through an opening in one corner of the hut. To camouflage the opening, we arranged triangular shelves that we hung on the two perpendicular walls of that corner and placed some knickknacks on them. The shelf closest to the floor was the entrance to our hiding space. It could be opened and closed only from the inside.

The new hideaway was smaller than the previous one. The new sleeping pallet was so narrow that we all had to sleep on our sides. If anyone turned in his sleep, all the rest of us would wake up and have to turn as well. In the daytime, all we could do was sit and converse in whispers. The space wasn’t adequately ventilated and when summer came it was stifling down there. We had no choice, but to open the trapdoor to the hut for a little bit of air.

By then, the echoes of heavy shelling we’d gotten used to, had fallen off. The local press reported that the German army was rallying, depressing us all the more. Everything seemed the same. Life went on as usual, with the Germans, Ukrainian collaborators and Polish police running around everywhere, looking for Jews. Very few were still alive. Yet the Nazi regime would not stop pursuing, torturing and murdering the survivors. Our underground room may have been stifling, but it was worse out in the world. The atmosphere grew increasingly despondent. We thought we’d never be free again.

[1]On the eve of Lag Ba’omer (literally the 33rd day of the omer, i.e., the seven-week countdown from Passover to the Festival of Weeks) it is traditional to build a bonfire. Children often engage in sports activities during the day, especially archery. Although the historical origins are obscure, the day is variously linked to Rabbi Akiva and the Bar Kokhba rebellion against the Romans (132 CE) and the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, buried on Mount Meron, near Safed, Israel. Today, many three-year old boys get their first haircut in Meron on Lag Ba’omer and many choose to get married on this day as it is customary not to hold large celebrations during the omer period.
[2]A traditional Romanian circle dance, very popular in Israel and Zionist and other Jewish youth movements.
[3]Literally “eternal light.” An always-lit lamp hangs in front of the Torah ark of every synagogue, a symbol of the continuously burning seven-branched candelabra in the Temple. Candles are also lit in honor of the deceased, both during the seven-day mourning period and on the anniversary of the passing.
[4]Aktion was the word used to describe an operation involving the mass assembly, deportation and murder of Jews by the Nazis.