Chapter 8

One hot summer’s day in early August 1944, we were sitting near the opening of our secret room trying to breathe some outside air. The owner of the hut was looking out the window.

Suddenly, he hurried over to our corner and told us to quickly close the opening to our underground room. He said he’d seen German armored vehicles coming down the road. We hurried to do as he said and sat in tense silence. After a short time, we were startled by insistent pounding on the opening. We thought we’d been discovered and our end had come.

Then we heard him yelling, “Open up! You can come out! You’re free! Those aren’t the Germans, they’re the Russians. It’s a Russian expeditionary force. I saw them with my own eyes and a neighbor who knows Russian even spoke with them!”

We remained seated, as if rooted to the spot. All of us had tears in our eyes. We couldn’t believe what he was saying. Was it possible the nightmare was over and our dreams were coming true? We climbed up into the hut as free people for the first time in years.

Of the nine hundred Jews who had fled the ghetto before its liquidation, our group and one other Jewish man were the only ones to survive.

Rachelka never came back. One last time, I went to the cellar where she and her family had hidden. The place was still in shambles, though it had been turned into a storage space by a town resident who lived nearby. He’d filled it with junk collected from the ghetto. I went down there and across from me, the words “We’re safe” – written by Rachelka – were still visible on the wall. My own name also appeared underneath her message, just as before.

I left the cellar with a heavy heart and headed for the forest to seek out our old meeting place at “The Twins.” I recognized the place, more or less. The natural bench formed by the split trunks and the trees towering above were gone. That entire part of the forest had been chopped down by the townsfolk for kindling during the war. From there I continued to “The Thick Tree,” our meeting spot next to the stream. Here, everything was exactly the same as before: the tree, its canopy and the shade cast on the grass. The water burbled as always. Only Rachelka was missing from the picture. I took my pocketknife and scratched her name and my name and the date into the bark.

When I finished, I sat down on the bank, looked into the clear water, listened to the rustle of the leaves and waited for Rachelka to sneak up behind me and cover my eyes and ask, “Guess who?” I would then name all the children, one by one, to delay the end of the game. I can again feel the pleasant touch of her fingers, as if her arms still embrace my head. I don’t turn this way or that, lest I surprise her and spoil our game.

But Rachelka doesn’t come.

I went to the city council secretary, the man who’d been willing to help her and had given her his parents’ address, her destination when she jumped from the moving train. Maybe she was sick and was therefore delayed? But there was no illness keeping Rachelka away. Since the liquidation of the ghetto, the secretary had visited his parents several times. They told him that Rachelka had never made it to their home.

I tried to delude myself into thinking that perhaps she’d been caught and sent to work in Germany and that she’d come home when the war ended. I only had to wait for Germany to surrender, and then, when the war was finally over and the roads open again, she’d be back. It was too soon to despair. She’d be back. Anything else was unthinkable. I would wait.

When the German occupation ended and the Russians assumed control, I resumed my commercial endeavors. The rest of our group did the same and our business flourished. We made a good living and could even afford luxuries. After the Russians liberated Warsaw, we bought an apartment in the city’s Praga district on the east bank of the Wisla. The western part of the city had been completely destroyed, some of it during the ghetto uprising and the rest during the uprising that preceded liberation.

Within a short period of time, we’d managed to amass much property. We dressed well and owned nice furniture and household goods. Materially, we lacked for nothing, but none of that mattered. We waited for an opportunity to immigrate to the land of Israel and I waited for Rachelka. When the Germans surrendered to the Allies, the last survivors returned from the death camps. Rachelka was not among them. Every time I walked down the street, my gaze would fasten on anyone who bore even a passing resemblance to her. I never found Rachelka. She was dead: she and six million other Jews.

A few months later, when I found out there was a way to get to Israel, I left home and joined a group of young Jewish holocaust survivors called a Kibbutz that was getting organized in Warsaw prior to moving to Palestine.

It didn’t bother me in the least to work at cleaning up the ruins, eating dry bread and finishing my meals with unsweetened coffee, even though our house was full of luxuries and our pantry stocked with delicacies. I only wanted to realize my dream of moving to Israel, and the sooner the better.

A few weeks later, my family and I packed a few belongings. We abandoned the Warsaw apartment and its contents and a great deal of family property in Łaskarzew. We left it all behind. Carrying small backpacks, we set off on a journey to reach the land of Israel.

We crossed the Polish-Czech border by train, pretending to be Greek refugees speaking “Greek.” In fact, we were singing Hebrew songs. While Yiddish would have been identified and marked us as Jews, Hebrew was foreign to the border guards, who accepted at face value our claim that we spoke “a special Greek dialect.” From Czechoslovakia, we crossed the border into Germany on foot, at night with the help of a guide. After some mishaps and a few adventures, we reached the American zone of Germany and ended up in Föhrenwald, which had one of the largest displaced persons camps in post-World War II Europe. We lived in an abandoned house that, during the war, had housed German war-effort employees in the munitions factories operated in the vicinity by IG Farben.

Our group had its own separate house. We continued to live communally, until conditions would allow us to continue on our way to Israel. In Germany, the Jewish Brigade [1] took us under its wing. The encounter with Jewish soldiers from Israel was incredibly moving and exciting. We barely held our tears in check seeing their blue, white and gold Star of David sleeve patches. We were once again proud Jews. Our awe increased when we saw their devotion in helping us get to Israel.

One night in particular stands out. It was cold and rainy. We were about to cross the border illegally from Germany into Belgium. We came to a small ditch filled with barbed wire blocking our way. Our guides, Jewish Brigade boys, saw how some of us were getting caught in the wire, slipping on the stones at the edge of the ditch, falling in the mud and slowing the group’s progress. The longer we were there, the higher the risk the border guards would catch us. To solve the problem, the two young soldiers lay down above the barbed wire. Holding their bodies in the plank position, they turned themselves into human bridges. With our heavy, mud-caked boots, we trod on top of them as they shielded us from the barbed wire until every last one of us was safe on the other side of the ditch.

From Belgium, we traveled to the south of France on a convoy of His Highness’ (King George) Royal Army trucks. Jewish Brigade members did the driving with the rest of us dressed in brigade uniform and carrying forged transit papers. We arrived at a small port on the Mediterranean where we boarded a creaky merchant vessel. Six hundred young people, each of whom bore both personal and national trauma were packed into the ship’s hold. We lay down on bunks, as crowded as sardines in a tin, for the thirteen-day passage. Stormy seas tossed the ship around with ease. Like a cork without a rudder, till or captain, it bobbed up and down among crashing waves that flooded the decks. When the storm broke, British naval destroyers appeared next to us and threatened to block our route and thwart our hope of finding a safe haven in our homeland.

At dawn, after almost two weeks at sea, our ship stubbornly made its made to the shores of the promised land, a blue and white flag flying from its helm. I leaned against the railing, unable to take my eyes off the Carmel mountain range visible in the distance.

Against the background of the purple sky and rising sun, I see Rachelka hovering between the pale clouds and the heavens, wearing a blindingly white dress, a glowing halo around her head. In that mystical moment, I hear her sweet voice saying, “Despite it all, your dream is coming true.” A pure, clear bell coming from a great distance peals once.

On the twenty-eighth of February 1946, I set foot on my beloved homeland for the very first time. After two thousand years of wandering, suffering and hope, my people have been redeemed. Thanks to the devotions and bravery of the best of our sons and daughters who risked their lives, the State of Israel was established, heralding liberty to all its persecuted children. Opening its gates wide, it gathered in the exiles from every corner of the globe. Israel’s army was founded to defend the nation’s citizens and make sure that Jewish blood would never again be spilled with impunity.

The heart aches when one thinks of those who were murdered on foreign soil and didn’t live to experience this new reality. I can’t get them out of my mind. Decades have passed, but I still see them, every last one of them. They parade through my memory stopping every once in a while to visit. Sometimes it’s an infant, a child, a young boy, a teenaged girl, an old man or an old woman. Some visit me only once or twice; others appear before me thousands of times. I remember the flash of their eyes and their shy gaze and a great longing floods my heart.

If they could only come alive in our town one last time, I would go up to each and every one of them and shake their hand. I’d chat with my friend Moishele, pop in to see my friend and teacher Yehiel, laugh at my great-uncle Baruch’s antics, stroke the soft cheek of Ruhama’s baby, slap Simcha on the back and – above all – embrace Rachelka once again.

How intense is their sorrow and how bitter their pain. It’s as if I experience the fear, restlessness and helplessness they felt in their hardest hours. They can no longer feel a thing, but for me – it’s as if it’s happening right now. I think, “How odd. Where do my thoughts wander? That world doesn’t exist anymore.”

Emotion has the upper hand. Every event and every incident reminds me of someone and brings me back to that place, that time. Whether I’m alone or surrounded by friends, at home or at work, resting or wide awake, at celebrations or commemorations, by day or by night, dreaming or awake. The heart aches, but the mind knows. All is gone. That world was destroyed, wiped out. It will never return.

[1]The Jewish Infantry Brigade Group (more commonly known as the Jewish Brigade Group or Jewish Brigade) was a military formation of the British Army composed of Jews living in Mandatory Palestine commanded by British-Jewish officers. Formed in late 1944, the Jewish Brigade served in Europe, fighting the Germans in Italy. After the war, some of the brigade’s personnel assisted Holocaust survivors to emigrate illegally to Mandatory Palestine.