The Passover evening Seder service, which I had experienced every year, representing the pinnacle of an elevated spirit, festivity and beauty, was no more, - nor could it be, without my father. Passively - uncaring, almost - we sat around the festive table, sadness in our hearts. Our grandfather led the well loved service from the Haggadah, with a face contorted in pain and a breaking voice. I prayed for him that neither he, nor his voice should fail, for it seemed to me that he was on the very verge of tears. Indeed, I knew that should he cry, I most certainly would be unable to control my own emotions. Fortunately for both of us - perhaps for all of us - his voice held and became stronger with each line he read and we became stronger together with him.
Yankeleh, being the youngest present, asked the traditional 'Four Questions', beginning: 'Why is this night different from all other nights?' We all asked in our hearts: 'Why is this Seder different from all the Seders we have known?'
'Pharoah's slaves in Egypt were we,' my grandfather answered, following the tradition, 'and the Lord our God brought us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm...'
Then what about us? Isn't our position worse that was that of our forefathers in Egypt? What is awaiting us?
We continued our reading from the Haggadah: '....and it is that promise which hath been the support of our ancestors and of ourselves; for not only one hath risen up against us to annihilate us but in every generation some have arisen against us, to destroy us but the Holy One, Blessed be He, is our deliverer out of their hands.'
Heart-piercing words; we had to believe in their truth. As God had saved us in the past, so would He save us now.
We read every word of the service without missing a thing, neither was anything missing from the traditional meal which was an integral part of the ordered ceremony and yet we finished much more quickly than usual. Not one of us was aware that we were moving ahead so rapidly; some kind of internal pressure had compelled us to finish as quickly as possible. Afterwards, we continued to sit around the table, drinking tea, when suddenly we heard the now too familiar sound of hob-nailed jackboots, the jackboots of German soldiers.
Each one of us became frozen to his seat. We heard the Germans mount the stairs. We heard the sound of knocking on the door of one of the apartments and after a few seconds again we heard the sound of the boots, this time fading away through the courtyard, into the distance. A Jew had been arrested during the Seder night.
The plight of the Jews had become so bad that it was difficult to imagine it getting any worse. The Jews had known persecution at the hands of Poland for generations upon generations but at least in the past, they were able to raise their voices in a cry for help. After a pogrom, Jews around the world always came to the assistance and relief of their persecuted and injured brethren, stretching forth a generous hand in help. Now, the Jew's life was made truly worthless. Any German could - and did - humiliate him, inflict cruelty upon him, beat him mercilessly, kill him - and the victim was forbidden to cry out, shout or complain - and there was no one to complain to!
Even more difficult than that was the economic situation that simply deteriorated from day to day. Most of the sources of income and sustenance had already been denied to the Jews and their cash resources were rapidly dwindling. Many people were finding it necessary to sell more and more of their valuables - be they household goods or even clothes. The Wolowka - the second-hand market - filled with people and expanded from day to day. People from all levels of society who in their lives would never have dreamt of coming to the place, now found themselves standing there selling various articles - like expensive tableware, silverware, clothes, bedding and even simple articles - everything and anything was offered for sale. Not only the Poles bought; Jewish merchants also bought - and cheaply, from those who, in their need, had to sell quickly - and they, in their turn resold to the Poles at a profit. When somebody came to the market in the hope of selling something of great value to himself and priced it accordingly, the potential purchasers would laugh at him. After standing around fruitlessly for an hour - which seemed like a year - he would reduce the price more and more. After all, if he's come to sell something, it must mean he needs the money urgently and at once.
Many Jews, living in the mixed suburbs, left their homes - some of them were actually evicted by the Germans, some of them left through fear - and moved to the Jewish area. The ghetto was created almost of itself, without any edict and the overcrowding, which increased dramatically with the influx of refugees from the regions annexed by the Third Reich, was unbearable. The overflowing streets, teeming with people, seemed on the verge of exploding. It was beyond my understanding where all this multitude found a roof over their heads. Indeed the inevitable worsening in sanitary conditions brought in its wake diseases which spread like wildfire - typhus and dysentery claimed their victims. The Sanitary Department of the Jewish Community did the best they could to dispose of the dirt and rubbish and prevent the spread of the infectious diseases. Teams of men went round spraying, evacuating the sick to hospitals and played a significant role in slowing the deteriorating situation - but not for long...........
When we arrived from Lodz, my mother had a quite respectable sum of money in her hand which seemed to us enough to last for a long, long time. With the absence of a balancing income however, and the continual, un-expectedly high outlay, our resources became depleted. My worried mother searched for some means of earning some money. In the beginning, she tried to trade in the sweaters, making use of the connections still remaining from before we left Warsaw for Lodz. The people received her very politely and sympathetically but stopped short of actually stretching out a helping hand. The situation of the experienced Warsaw traders was, in any case, worse than terrible and my mother, as a newly arrived stranger, didn't have a chance in that field. She very soon became disheartened.
In his search for work, my brother Mottel became a worker in a sweater factory in a stifling room in one of the workshops in our building, One Pszebieg Street. For some time, Mottel had heard the sound of knitting machines and when he discovered the source, the idea of seeking work there occurred to him. In the beginning, the owner was doubtful as to Mottel's capabilities and said to Mottel that in order to know how to operate knitting machines, one had to be more than just the son of the owner of a sweater factory but Mottel proved to him that he was an expert at the work. Mottel kept stating:
I'm fed up wandering around doing nothing, I can't learn, I can't conc-entrate.
He seemed satisfied after he began working but my mother and sister became saddened.
Is it impossible for us to manage without Mottel having to become a worker for someone? My sister grumbled. The simple labour shamed the family; it was a striking sign of the reduction in our status. Everyone looked at Mottel as at an unfortunate deserving of pity. I however, was jealous of him - again he was at the focus of attention and interest - active, doing something for everyone while I was unable to do a thing.
From the time he began to work, Mottel enjoyed a special status at home. My mother would provide him with extra food, to strengthen him and I would follow after him whenever he came to eat at lunch time and when he returned home after work I would jump on him and ask him how it was. After a little while we got used to the new situation and Mottel ceased to be the centre of interest but at the same time a change came over him - he spoke less, was more introverted and seemed depressed.
Only later did we get to know the reason for his behaviour. It seems that two young men working at the factory were very crude in their behaviour. When it became clear to them that Mottel was not of the same mind, they began to make fun of his reticence and modesty. They swore endlessly in the presence of the girl working at a winding machine although she didn't seem to mind - she even laughed at the things she heard - while at the same time, my brother suffered agonies of embarrassment. He worked there during all the summer months.
The production of rumours didn't stop for a moment. They came wave after wave, sweeping everyone along with them, surging to a peak, then subsiding and giving way to new ones taking their place. Nobody knew whence they came, nor how the new ones were born. In Lodz we were flooded with rumours that the Russians were coming to replace the Germans - and in the middle of it the Germans annexed the city to the Third Reich and the Jews were consigned to the ghetto. Warsaw, too, now stirred and whispered with the same rumours - the Russians are coming - and these gained strength from the story that an agreement had been reached for that purpose, between the Germans and the Russians. Most of the Jews did not support the Bolsheviks; they didn't want a dictatorial authority in the hands of the proletariat and they feared the bitter war of annihilation of the communists against religion. In the days of its establishment, therefore, the Communist State represented a national tragedy for the Jewish people but in the situation created by the outbreak of World War Two, the coming of the Russians was perhaps a doorway of salvation to the Jews. For this reason, the ground was very fertile for the establishment of such rumours and evidence was not wanting in order to confirm the truth of it; it required only an exile or captive to be released by the Germans for the explanation to go round that they were beginning their withdrawal from the city.
There were other rumours, as well - such as the one which said that in the near future a ghetto was to be created in Warsaw. This rumour, too, seemed to return at regular intervals, except that, here and there one could see signs that its implementation was coming closer.
Each day the Germans fixed new boundaries to the Jewish 'area' In some streets, it was forbidden to rent apartments to Jews, in others they had been evicted. Jews concentrated more and more in the traditionally Jewish part of the city and rumour had it that the area was to be closed entirely; no one would enter and no one would leave.
The news from the front broke our spirits. Who could imagine that France, considered to be one of the world powers - she, who had created the unbreachable Maginot Line, whose fortifications were bristling with arm-aments - would collapse within a few days in spite of England's help?
Apprehension stole into the heart that the German army was un-conquerable, that the Germans would, in fact, overrun the whole world........
Much time was required by the Jews to develop anew the hope of a German downfall.
The Jewish Community issued a decree: all men were obliged to work a number of days a month. A part of those who mobilized, particularly the young ones, were taken by the Germans and sent to labour camps. No one knew of their fate; no one knew where they were. Different stories went the rounds on what was happening in these camps. Those there were who said the conditions were good and that those who were arrested returned after a month or two, and then there were those who told stories of a shocking nature - hard manual labour, draining swamps from sunrise to dusk; backbreaking toil - and all who couldn't stand up to it were shot on the spot.
A terrible fear fell on everyone. The rich paid a levy or hired others to work in their stead. As more people became informed as to what was happening with the work parties, the number of people who reported for work became smaller and smaller - and then the Germans reacted by taking men off the streets; there they would abduct any young man without consideration as to whether he had worked or paid the levy. The Jews learned to protect themselves against these sudden abductions. More than once, while wandering the busy, noisy street, I saw it empty suddenly - literally within seconds and the tense, embarrassed Germans caught no one, though they were much ridiculed.
Before the war, nearly everyone left Warsaw during the summer months to spend their vacations at holiday resorts. My mother used to say:
Summer in the country is a matter of the children's health and is not a question for debate.
Now, no one even dared to think about leaving for the country. Everyone was jammed between the heat-reflecting walls of their homes, or escaped from the stifling atmosphere of the house to the overcrowded streets, to the gardens, parks and squares in the Jewish quarter, because of the great fear attached to visiting similar facilities in open areas on the way to the river Vistula.
In spite of all these things, the Jews adjusted themselves very quickly to the changing situation. Every day, new restaurants, delicatessens and coffee shops opened up - all full of people. The young people found ways to enjoy themselves and pass the time. All the youth movements continued to operate - underground, of course - and organized social gatherings and meetings, dances, plays and sing-songs. My sister, Devorah, a member of Hashomer Hatza'ir, went every day to some activity or other connected with the - movement.
At home, fear again permeated the atmosphere. This time lest Mottel should be taken from us and sent to a labour-camp. Mottel was a big, tall, powerful, young man, looking older than his years. My mother was frightened that he would fall into the hands of the Germans and be sent to a labour camp without them even bothering to ask his age. It was true, nevertheless, that Mottel did not wander the streets as did others of his age. He almost didn't show his face outside the confines of the building. For all that, my mother was worried.
'Who knows what the day will bring forth?' She used to quote. I don't want to lose my son a second time!
Her worry for Mottel increased when he began to lose weight and become pale. He had also developed a tendency to sudden outbreaks of anger to the extent that we were afraid to talk to him.
Mottel didn't talk much and it was difficult to know exactly what was going on in his mind. Apart from my mother, whom he respected, I was the only one at home who showed him affection. Nevertheless, more than once I found myself getting angry at him because he seemed to think too much of himself. I couldn't bear the arguments between him and my sister - I saw him as head of the family - even though he was younger than Devorah and as such, I expected him to bring tranquility to the home.
My mother wrote letters to my father's sisters, who were living in Turobin, asking what the situation was there. From the replies she received, it seemed that it was much better than in Warsaw. The sisters wrote that if the situation in Warsaw was bad and we decided to come to Turobin they would be happy to have us live with them. My mother suggested that Mottel go there but he refused outright to leave us saying that his place was with the family and his the responsibility to care for us. My brother was right, in my opinion. He had already had one experience of running away, with my father, at the beginning of the war.
I had a new partner on the balcony, joining me in my survey of the courtyard activities. My brother, Yankeleh who, during the year had changed from being a spoiled, screaming child, sometimes impossible to bear, to a quiet attentive one. He loved the balcony; would sit there, next to me, asking many questions and telling me stories. I had recently begun to pay him a little more attention and even took him for strolls in the city streets without my mother asking me to. Could a seven-year-old really understand that this was not the time to expect to be spoiled; did he somehow sense what was happening in our lives and adjust himself to the situation?
The courtyard, like a bee-hive, hummed with people coming and going, stopping, exchanging a few words and continuing on their respective ways. Many new faces were seen and more than one found shelter in our big building. Among the beggars and gossips were to be found new faces, as well. Street singers, musicians and various new groups also sprouted like mushrooms after the rain. I loved the old entertainers and their old songs, although they were now being seen less than they were before. Not much changed, however, regarding the windows around the yard: the same faces looked out at the show. Only the Prinzetals' young home-help was not to be seen any more and I, who knew that I had done something not very nice by snooping on her while she was undressing and naked, was glad that I wouldn't have to face the test of being tempted again. At the same time, I did miss her and occasionally looked to see if she was there, in her window. I also searched for the beloved girl of my dreams, with whom I sailed an ocean of delightful fantasies.
The first autumn winds began to blow and in Pszebieg Street they were extremely noticeable and uncomfortable because the street opened out on to an exposed area which extended to beyond the Vistula. When I was younger, my grandfather used take me to the synagogue which was in Bonifraterska Street and when we got close to the corner of the street he would say to me:
Now hang on to me tightly, in case the wind blows you away!
Out of fear, I would hang on to his hand with all my strength. The autumn winds heralded the coming of a winter for which we were ill-prepared. In normal times, we would check and prepare the house for winter, stocking up on coal and wood for the fire and renew our winter clothing. This time we didn't prepare ourselves in any way - not coal and not clothing, we only prayed for an easy winter. Rosh Hashonna and Yom Kippur were also drawing near, festivals which filled me with terror, for during the ten days separating them, there in heaven, the fate of every one was being decided - '...who would live and who die; who by fire and who by water.......for on Rosh Hashonna it will be written and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed.....'
Who knows if it isn't already written and sealed, that I, Bereleh, am to die this year? During the year I had certainly sinned. Would God forgive me, or not? What about the people I know who have sinned, who eat non-kosher food, work on Shabbos, don't go to synagogue even on Shabbos and other Holy Days. Will nothing happen to them? The answers are in God's hands.
One day my mother announced happily that we were going to start school. I was not happy! I felt, somehow, that I was no longer able to adapt to a school régime. As it turned out it was a false rumour; not one school opened. At the same time, the rumours concerning the establishment of the ghetto started going the rounds again but there was nothing new in them and everyone hoped that this time, as on previous occasions, nothing would happen. Nevertheless, edict followed edict: 'A Jew who sees a German coming towards him, must step off the pavement onto the road.' It was a strange sight to see a German soldier, sometimes a youth - a child, almost - walking down a street full of Jews and then seeing everyone, from children to old people, removing themselves from his path, into the roadway and waiting there until he had passed. After a short while the reaction seemed so automatic and natural and from a distance one could see a river of humanity literally snaking its way along the pavement, each bend of the 'snake,' into the road, marking the position of a German soldier on the pavement.
Later, Jews were forbidden to use all the carriages of the trams; only special ones and usually the last one. Not all trams had one attached and sometimes Jews had to wait an hour until a tram arrived with a carriage for them. Trams, almost completely empty, would pass by them and when a tram did arrive with a 'Jewish' carriage, the first two were usually half empty and all the Jews had to cram themselves into the last one, crushed to overflowing.
Since the coming of the Germans, it was forbidden to hold prayers in the synagogues and the Jews prayed, somehow, in private houses. On Rosh Hashonna and Yom Kippur, the problem became especially acute, since on these Holy Days nearly everyone, without exception, would come to pray. Every other apartment became a house of prayer and on the eve of the festival one could see Jews carrying the Torah from the various synagogues to private houses. Prayers in private houses were also forbidden but pray we must - danger notwithstanding. We prayed together with our grandfather and grandmother at Number Thirty Bonifraterska Street, an apartment above my grandfather's synagogue. Nearly a hundred men gathered there, jammed into the room, while in the next room were crammed the women, my mother among them.
Those present prayed tearfully and begged for God to preserve their souls; could it be possible that God would not save them; would not listen to their voice? At the end of the prayers, we felt a certain relief. We had poured out our hearts to God for only he could save us.
We wished each other 'A Good Year' and on returning home celebrated the festival in its normal fashion by dipping a piece of apple in honey and eating it to symbolize our hope for a sweet and fruitful New Year.
On Yom Kippur, we prayed in the same place but the overcrowding was even worse and the crush terrible. The room was full of burning candles and the windows closed firmly for fear that the voices of prayer would be heard on the street. Feeling completely choked, I sought occasional relief outside on the staircase, in order to breathe a bit of fresh air. I found it very difficult to fast, the hunger pangs bothering me without let-up. There was no alternative though, and if all the others could hang on then I, too, was obliged to prove that I could do so.
During the early afternoon prayer, someone came in and said that the radio had announced the creation of the Warsaw ghetto. The announcement fell like a bomb-shell and spread like fire through a pile of dry straw. In an instant everyone stopped praying, asked him for further details and each wondered to himself on the truth of the information. The man assured us that he had heard the announcement with his own ears, from loudspeakers in the street which, according to him, even gave details of the boundaries of the area concerned and named the streets forming the ghetto.
Faces, already pale, paled even more. At first, the knowledge caused a commotion but very quickly people became silent, until someone reminded us that we must continue with the prayers. We continued praying even more tearfully than before.
Time after time we had the impression that things were so bad that they couldn't get any worse, as people say: 'It's always darkest just before the dawn'. Except that again and again we had to learn from our mistake. The situation can get worse. For some months now the rumour had been going round about the formation of the Warsaw ghetto and it was clear to us that the Germans were capable of doing just that, for the Lodz ghetto had already been in existence almost a full year. The Germans were capable of even worse - in the major city Krakow, one bright day, they ordered all the Jews out of the city for good. The Jews of Krakow found themselves, suddenly with nothing: no roof over their heads and no means of support; they simply became - on the spot - refugees and wandered to the nearby villages seeking shelter. The Jews of Warsaw, in spite of all this, hoped that the same thing wouldn't happen to them and when it did happen, they were struck dumb with shock.
The day after Yom Kippur a notice appeared on walls and notice boards, ordering all Jews living outside the boundaries defined as 'The Jewish Sector', to vacate their apartments, leave their places of work and move, within one month, into the area designated 'Jewish'. All the non-Jews were similarly ordered out of the Jewish sector into the 'Aryan Sector'. The edict named the streets forming the ghetto and its boundaries. All day long people stood in front of the notice studying its contents. Some of them thanked God that their apartment was situated inside the ghetto, while others cried because theirs was outside. We were lucky. Pszebieg Street was just on the border - inside.
Many questions arose. Within the boundaries of the ghetto were many Christian institutions, especially a church and a hospital for the chronically ill, which stood, by chance, in our street. What would happen to them? The church, said the Germans, in the goodness of their hearts, was included in the ghetto, intentionally, for the benefit of the number of Jews who had converted to Christianity, even though the edict applied to them as well; in vain had these Jews abandoned their Jewishness in this, or the previous generation (or their forebears in earlier generations). With the help of their Polish helpers, the Germans searched out all the Jews who had converted to the Christian faith, all who had been born to Jewish parents and all who had a Jewish grandfather; all these were considered Jews and were obliged to wear the Star of David - were now obliged also to move to the ghetto. It was difficult to imagine where this multitude of Jews - perhaps even hundreds of thousands - would find a place to stay in the already overflowing confines of the ghetto. In any case, the rentals for apartments in the ghetto area increased by many times. The Jewish residents were quick to exploit the misfortunes of others.
Within days of the edict first appearing one could see carts, loaded with furniture and other chattels coming into the ghetto area. These were generally hired by the well-to-do, trying to save their property for as long as it was still possible - for who knows what the morrow may bring forth? As the days passed, the movement of these laden carts increased more and more - the porters and carters were having a field day. Thanks to the tremendous demand for their services, they were able to demand high prices for their work. Unemployed people constructed home made, primitive carts and earned their daily bread by transporting house-loads of belongings into the ghetto. Before the war, when there had been outbursts of anti-Semitism and groups of National Socialists had gone wildly round smashing the display windows of Jewish shops, the Jews laughed and said that the National Socialists had done a big favour for poor, Jewish glaziers - and now came the chance of porters and carters who, because of the standstill in trade, had lost their means of livelihood.
Poor Jews, who were hard put to it to rent a flat, waited until the very last days, in the hope that the Jewish Community would help to house them. Indeed, the community workers went from house to house, noting down the empty apartments and also the number of people occupying the inhabited flats and the rumour was that families without means would be housed rent free in those flats where there was space available. At once the rents being asked dropped suddenly and dramatically because everyone wanted to rent their apartment to tenants they considered suitable and at least get some benefit out of it.
The uprooting and transfer to the ghetto reached its peak in the last days of the month. A tide of people streamed into the ghetto with carts and without them. Whole families, laden down with whatever they could conveniently carry on their shoulders, wandered around. Indescribable wretchedness drew the eye at every turn. People who had no place to which they could go, sat down where they were on street corners, courtyards, stairwells - in every imaginable place. The community workers opened up the school buildings and other public institutions for them.
Nobody knew whether the ghetto was to be open or closed and even though it was known that the Lodz ghetto was completely closed and cut off from the outside world, people still hoped that the Warsaw ghetto would remain open and we would not be isolated.
My brother was fired from his job because there was no more work. The fear of him being sent to a labour camp had not been lifted from our house and my mother again suggested to him that he leave Warsaw before it was too late. Our flat turned into a battleground of constant arguing because of Mottel's refusal to leave. In the meantime, our financial position had worsened and the fact was immediately noticeable through the reduction in quality of our food. My mother, with great irony, said that the war had brought with it at least one good thing - it had given me an appetite! (Before the war I was '.....never hungry' and ate remarkably little; when I tried to please my mother by eating just a little bit more I always ended by vomiting immediately). Now, however, I had no problems of appetite and I was able to eat vast quantities. Our menu changed very quickly: butter, cream, eggs and meat were seen less and less on the table until they became only a memory of days gone by. The desire to eat increased......
The house committee, which had been brought into being by respected people in the community, collected money and clothing for distribution to the needy. The members of the committee had visited us from time to time and had always received generously from my mother to the extent that a friendly, rather than formal relationship had been woven between them, the more so since some of them had been known to my mother for some time. Now, my mother was a little anxious at receiving another visit from them because she couldn't donate anything more without worsening the condition of her own children - something that she certainly could not and would not do. She also didn't want it to become known that our own position had deteriorated so much. One evening, when the committee came to visit, my mother poured them tea, as usual, while they told her of their mission of charity. My mother placed before them a modest sum of money and asked their forgiveness for not giving more. The representatives were surprised: they were used to receiving more from her. One of the women said: If you can't manage it, maybe it would be better if you didn't give us anything at all..... My mother insisted on her modest contribution but as soon as they left the house, she broke down and cried.
One morning, when I went out I saw that at the end on the corner of Bonifraterska Street, some workmen were building a wall. Everyone who passed by stopped for a moment to see how our free passage to the open spaces, to the Fortress, the parks and to the Vistula, was being blocked.
From now onwards, not only would we be unable to go out there; we would be unable even to look at an open area, a broad stretch of greenery.
Very quickly it became clear that this was not the only wall by far - tens of walls were being put up, all round the ghetto boundaries, at all the streets, effectively sealing off the ghetto from the outside world.
At the junction of Bonifraterska and Muranowska streets, they erected a barrier and at the corner of the street they placed a guard post. The sealing of the ghetto had been planned to the last detail and its execution was rapid. Within a matter of days, we found ourselves totally enclosed in one gigantic prison numbering some half-million inmates.
It was now many months that I had been hearing the word 'ghetto' being repeated by everyone and in the light of my experience of the Lodz ghetto, I knew that the reference was to a large area wherein were confined all the Jews. I had heard too, of the ghettos of the middle ages.
For all that, I found it difficult to picture to myself just how life carried on within the ghetto. My natural curiosity had me running around the streets, every day from morning until evening, among the throngs of people, anxious to pick up all and any information as to what was happening. The area of the ghetto, absorbed thousands of additional people together with their belong-ings, every day, as if it were made of rubber. More and more of them kept coming and somehow or another, as if by a miracle, all of them found a place to stay - except that it was not really a miracle; there was nothing wonderful about it at all: the mass of people simply pressed themselves into every available spot under the most appalling conditions.
In my wanderings I became witness to the formation of the ghetto 'kingdom' from its foundation. One day the Jewish Police came into existence, round black hats with a Star of David on them, on their heads.They bore every resemblance to their counterparts - the Polish Police.
It was true that they didn't have uniforms but they wore almost the same coats, many of them wore boots and all of them had truncheons stuck in their belts. There was also a special branch of Economic Police, whose members wore green hats. These, for some reason, were nicknamed 'The Thirteen' and they were supposed to combat the blackmarket speculators but in fact, they were all afraid of the racketeers.
In place of the trams, which, in effect were forbidden to the Jews, horse-drawn carriages appeared on the streets, bearing a large Star of David. A complete Jewish government - lock, stock and barrel - came into being hand-in-hand with the creation of the ghetto. All civil management within the ghetto passed into the hands of the Jewish Community. Signs in Yiddish were hung in front of all the public institutions and offices and on shop fronts.
No matter in which direction I roamed in the ghetto, I always arrived, eventually, at either a road blocked by the wall of the ghetto, or a barrier of barbed wire manned by a guard comprising a German soldier, a Polish policeman and a Jewish policeman. When I went to visit my aunt, I became aware that in Bonifraterska Street one side belonged to the ghetto and as such was enclosed by barbed wire, while the other side most of the street was not included in the ghetto. I had known this street since my early childhood and until a few days ago I could - and did - walk on the side of the street that had now become part of another world: the world outside the ghetto. A world in which, again, you could find no Jew. Every Jew found on the wrong side of the barrier was placing his life in real and immediate danger.
Apparently there are no limits to what can be done to a man and still have him get used to it. We now lived totally within the ghetto, isolated from the outside, existing within a world about which people had been speaking for some months with anxiety. In spite of the drastic changes that had taken place before our eyes, life continued on its new track. The streets were full of people - all of them Jews, since no Aryans were to be found in the ghetto - the trams crossing the ghetto did so rapidly and without stopping, a Polish policemen on guard on each one, to make sure no one got on or off during the journey.
The economic situation, impossible before the creation of the ghetto, now became infinitely worse. The closing of the ghetto had cut off the last source of maintenance and livelihood - trade - and from what, now, would people exist? Hence forward we were totally dependent upon the Germans and what they would permit us to bring in - and still the people coped with the new situation. We tried to build our lives within the new, restricting framework, coming to terms with events and saying to ourselves that we must hang on; we will yet be witnesses to the German downfall. There were even those who said that it was all for the best - perhaps here, in the ghetto, they will allow us to live in peace.
With the sealing of the ghetto, most essentials vanished from the shops. Meat, dairy-products, eggs and fruit disappeared from view. Ration stamps were distributed to the population, each person receiving a small ration of food, low in calories on which it was impossible to survive. Gradually, however, all the things one wished to buy, began to appear again on the market and via the back doors of shops, but all at an exorbitantly high price that only very few people could afford to pay. Quickly and mysteriously a network of smuggling came into being and in a short while there was nothing that wasn't being smuggled into the ghetto. People were talking of underground passages between the two sides and even walls of houses which were common to both sides, being breached. There was a story that in one house, there was a pipe from one side to the other through which flowed unlimited quantities of milk........
Animals, from chickens to cows, were smuggled into the ghetto by ways unknown to any but the perpetrators. There were even acts of smuggling carried out in full view of everyone. Hour after hour, I would stand and watch smuggling operations taking place using the trams that passed through the ghetto at speed - suddenly, at certain places, especially on sharp bends, when the guard in the first section was unable to see what was happening behind him after his own car had negotiated the turn, the smugglers would quickly throw heavy sacks of flour, or beans, or grain out of the back of the tram onto the street and there they would lie, as if abandoned - unclaimed - but as soon as the tram had disappeared from view a couple of people would burst forth from the doorway of one of the nearby houses, load up the sacks and disappear, as if into thin air. Each such operation lasted no more than a very few seconds and incidents such as these were occurring all day long. The smugglers didn't succeed in throwing the sacks out every time: there were occasions when the policeman interfered, or a German soldier was on the tram, perhaps standing close to the smuggler who then had to hang on to his sack and try again another day. Sometimes he was forced to jump together with his sack - or get caught.
A different style of smuggling took place at the ghetto gates: workers, who had finished their day's labours outside the ghetto, would return towards evening, having bought all manner of food necessities on the Aryan side - most especially bread and vegetables for their families - usually spending their last few pennies to do so. They would hide their smuggled purchases all over their bodies and stand in line at the gate waiting to be passed through, praying for a bit of luck. There were occasions when a whole group was passed through without a check and then one could see the happiness spread over the faces of the people, knowing that their loved ones would soon have the pleasure of a little extra food. Most of the time, however, the people were checked one by one and made to open their sleeves, or untie the bottoms of their long underpants, so that anything that had been hidden fell out onto the ground - potatoes, onions, carrots, here and there a loaf of bread and sometimes a packet of butter or other rare commodity. There were some who had bought only a very few potatoes or a piece of bread but these, too, had to be left behind on the ground and very often the smuggler would be beaten. On those occasions, I would see them enter the ghetto, their faces as white as a sheet, often crying.
The heavy rains and strong winds drove the people off the streets into their houses but the chill penetrated the houses and the bones of those who dwelt within them. On top of the cold was heaped an additional burden that we had not appreciated until now, a burden that we had only heard about from the days of the First World War - the hunger. At home, we still managed to eat in an organized fashion, three times a day, but the food, lacking fats, was rather unsatisfying. The hunger never left me, from the moment that I opened my eyes in the morning, until I fell asleep at night - and like me, many others. Impatient, we waited for meal times, watching tensely as food was being distributed. My mother, feeling she was being watched carefully and even criticized, lost her self-confidence and more than once made a mistake in the fair distribution of the food, causing arguments between Devorah and Mottel, each of whom blamed the other. As it happens, their arguments didn't centre directly round the fine details of 'who received what' - but there can be little doubt that the hunger which we all felt so acutely, provided a fertile back-ground on which all sorts of unkind thoughts could nurture themselves.
During this period, we noticed that our mother was eating practically nothing, except a little soup. When we pointed this out to her, she insisted that she was eating exactly the amount that she felt she needed and that there was no need to worry about her. We were not convinced by this and decided among ourselves that we would not start eating until we had seen her take for herself a portion identical to that which she gave to us. Many arguments broke out between us and our mother around this subject - virtually every meal time - until in the end she had no option other than to take for herself the same that she gave to us.
Every evening, a group of people - most of them neighbours - would gather in our flat and spend many hours, drinking tea, sweetened with saccharine, telling about their experiences, arguing, sometimes playing 'Tranitzka'- bingo. Sometimes, someone would bring sweets or biscuits.
Why our house? It seems that, although seven people were living in our two rooms, our flat was the biggest and, possibly, my mother the best hostess. Most of these evenings passed very pleasantly for all of us. At the end of a hard day in the ghetto, it was so necessary to relax and unburden oneself of everything; to push into forgetfulness the awful present and to support oneself with memories of a better past that now seemed so far away; or to cultivate illusions, replete with hope of a better future. The conversations generally started with an up-date of the news. Everyone would relate what he had seen and heard during the day and when the news was bad or saddening, an oppressive silence would settle on us for some minutes. Sometimes an argument would break out concerning our uncertain future, until someone would take it upon themself to cut the argument short by telling something from the not too distant past - that now seemed very distant indeed - stories about holiday hotels, excursions, parties and all sorts of pleasant activities. A wave of longing would swamp all of us and all present would suddenly feel an urge to relate his own memory of a totally pleasant experience.
Among those who came to these evenings, was a rather unusual couple - the man was the son of one of the veteran tenants of the building, a very religious family. In his youth, he had 'gone astray' by joining the Zionist Movement and emigrating to Palestine. There, he remained three years but eventually he gave up and came back to Poland, married and was now 'eating his heart out' because he had returned. He would tell us stories about Palestine - stories that were simple but romantic, about hard work under a burning sun, or his sufferings from malaria. He would also relate cheering episodes, like the part he played in the building of Jewish settlements - Kibbutzim, villages, about Tel-Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem; of the noisy effervescence of life in the Land of our Forefathers, while we sat trapped in the ghetto, condemned, it would seem, to die of starvation, unable to do a thing. As if hypnotized, I would swallow every word about the Land of Israel. I was enchanted by the thought that there were Jews who were not under the German yoke, who were living freely in their own land.
Nearly every evening ended in a conversation about food: people loved to talk about food and dishes that they had eaten on special occasions and gave details of the taste and aromas that the food produced so vividly that you could almost taste it on the tip of your tongue or smell it in your nose. The faces of those present would become somewhat distant and introspectively sensuous; their eyes became dreamy - but hunger, real and biting eventually drove everyone home.
In spite of the autumn weather, the rain that now and again came down, or the damp cold which penetrated the bones, people still crowded into the streets all day long. Only occasionally, with startling suddenness, the streets would empty and that was when the Germans appeared - because that meant trouble. The moment they moved on, however, the streets again filled with people. Every day new restaurants or confectionaries or cafes were opened. Groups of entertainers, cabaret and opera singers, pop-singers of the day and excellent acrobats - all filled the streets and courtyards; all of them out of work due to the ending of normal appearances; all of them trying to earn their daily bread together with the beggars. One day, I saw a gathering of people in Muranowska Square and the sounds of music came to my ears. I drew nearer. The music that I heard was different to any that was usually played by the street musicians. Middle aged people, well-dressed, stood in a semi-circle, playing their violins with serious faces. The audience gazed curiously at the serious-looking group. Eventually, I heard someone say to the people standing near me:
Do you know who're playing here? These are the top musicians in Poland! They're members of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and there are famous soloists among them.
The man spoke with great feeling and finished by adding: What a disaster it is that all of us have got to this state of affairs!
A few people placed some coins on a plate which the musicians had put on the ground. I stood there for a long time, listening to them playing. It was a style of music that I was hearing for the first time.
The street was a dangerous place because at any moment a German may appear and attack you with crippling blows, or detain you and send you to a work camp - even shoot you capriciously as in a passing whim. Nevertheless, some kind of hidden force caused people to leave the safety of their houses and go out into the streets. After all how could one possibly stay in the house all day long with the wife and children, doing absolutely nothing. It was better to go out and try one's luck - perhaps something or somone would appear which would offer you the opportunity of earning a bit of money; perhaps you'll meet an acquaintance who will help you find a job of some sort, or perhaps, just walking round you may suddenly have a bright idea for earning a living! Many found their way to the doors of the Jewish Community, hoping that perhaps a bit of luck would come their way. Long queues stretched from the doorway of the soup kitchen and other places offering support to the needy and many just wandered the streets aimlessly, simply because they had nothing to do at home.
The number of people holding out their hand for help in the ghetto, continued to grow. Some of them solicited passers-by in the street, asking help from them, some stood or sat on the pavements, close to the walls of the buildings, asking for charity. Among all these were also many children seeking help, either by themselves, or forming groups if they happened to be from the same family. The beggars increased and the donations became less. How long could they hang on?
The street sellers also increased in number and among them were many children. They would hang a carton round their neck and inside would be cigarettes or sweets, or they would place a table on the pavement and spread their goods upon it. Only let a man show the slightest sign of wanting to buy something and everyone immediately fell upon him like a pack of wolves until he, poor man, surrounded by them, didn't know, out of sheer embarrassment, from whom to buy.
I wandered ceaselessly among the hordes of people, absorbing everything that was happening in the street. The large groups of entertainers never came to our courtyard again but every day we were visited by singers, accordion-players, violinists or players of other instruments, singing songs both old and new, seekers after charity - mostly children, would sing and then ask for charity in thin, piping voices, while gazing upwards towards the windows of the apartments. These children were prepared to accept anything that would otherwise be thrown away:
Please, we beg of you - even if it's mouldy bread or potato peel.
Every day, two children came to our courtyard. They appeared to be brother and sister about six, seven or eight years of age and always they had the same cry:
'Buy, buy our cigarettes,
They're dry- untouched by rain.
We, ask for pity,-
save us from death.'
These two children had something very special that drew affection; they even received a few coins more than their rivals. Until, one day they stopped coming and we wondered what had happened to them. It was easy to suppose that they had died from sickness or starvation.
Many things had changed in our courtyard - the courtyard of Number One Pszebieg Street - but one thing stayed the same: the children continued to play and their voices were heard all day - except that the games had changed in keeping with the times: instead of 'cops and robbers', they now played 'Gestapo and Jews', and during the game the 'Germans' cursed in German and the Jews were shot...............
I continued to sit on our balcony and look at the goings-on in the courtyard, occasionally raising my eyes to the third floor window searching for the head of my dream-girl, steeped in happiness.
After all the arguments that we had endured every evening at home, my mother decided to send Mottel to Turobin, my father's home town. My father's sister promised to care for him as if he were her own son. It was difficult to understand exactly what she was thinking, making such a fateful decision - to separate a second time from my brother Mottel - and on her own initiative. It was a separation for who knew how long and in one's heart gnawed the fear that perhaps we would never see each other again. It appeared that my mother was not only concerned that Mottel may be trapped and sent to a labour camp - people were saying that such camps were already in existence in the area of Lublin - the food situation at home had got even worse - and quickly - without the slightest hope of it improving. Mottel was very tall and very thin. He was irritable, unsettled and clearly in need of food and a little freedom. There, in that small out-of-the-way town, he had a chance for both. Perhaps, even, my mother feared the worst - that she didn't think that we would manage to last out and was trying to save whoever it was possible to save?
The task of getting Mottel out of the ghetto, transporting him to Lublin and from there to the little town of Turobin, was in no way simple and required not a little money. My mother, however, acted with great energy, selling different items until she had sufficient. She then approached one of the smugglers.
And so it came about that one evening we again stood together crying as we separated from our brother and son, one question stabbing the heart: Will we ever see each other again?
This time, I was not jealous of my brother, as I had been the first time, when he left home with my father. This time I felt sorry for him for he was 'condemned' to be sent far away from home, to live in the house of an aunt whom we barely knew. I was pleased that I had been allowed to stay at home among my family. I was sorry that Mottel had left, I worried about him and prayed for him; that he should arrive safely at his destination. I missed him - on the other hand, I felt, somehow, more comfortable, freer, without my brother near me, for while he was at home I felt the whole time under his control, under his inspection and his critical eye. He also came between me and my mother, whose nearness I needed. Now, that he wasn't here, I came closer to her, I went with her about her business, I stood with her in the market while she sold household articles and spoke with her more than before. It was good to be near her and I think she, too, enjoyed having me close.
Winter struck suddenly and with all its strength.
The white snow covered everything and the freezing cold ruled the streets and slowly penetrated the houses. The streets emptied - only those who had no option were to be found going about their business as quickly as possible.
Stubborn peddlers, seekers after charity and those with a strong, determined will, stood close to the walls, hopping from foot to foot trying to warm themselves. With considerable anxiety, the Jews of the ghetto had awaited the coming of winter. How will they heat their houses with no wood and no coal? We still had a little wood and coal in stock but even if we husbanded it carefully there was sufficient to heat the house only for a short period - what would happen afterwards? What about the long winter months? It was decided to heat only one room and my grandfather, who had tens of years experience with the stove, would be responsible for its care and operation.
This stove likes to 'eat' a lot but after it has eaten to its satisfaction it will give heat for a long time, my grandfather said. We'll try and 'trick' it: we'll give it a small ration and see what we can get out of it.....
My grandfather laid some thin sticks in the stove, placed some thicker ones on top of them and on top of those placed a few lumps of coal, looked at what he had done speculatively and placed another lump of coal on top. Then, he lit the fire and waited until the flames reached the top of the pyramid, then closed one of the vents and again waited for the flames to strengthen themselves. Then he closed the second vent and the two front guard doors which protected you from coming into accidental contact with the hot areas. My grandfather seemed pleased with his work. Everything was in order and now we waited for the stove and the room to warm up. Every few minutes I put my hands on the bricks to see if they were getting hot. My grandfather laughed at me, saying that I would have to wait a couple of hours for them to get hot enough for that. In fact, the stove got warm quite quickly and in less than hour I was able to warm my hands on the tiles although the stove didn't get hot enough to radiate much heat into the room. We waited in vain for the room to get hot enough for us to walk around in our shirts. Before the war the stove used to be so effective that we would sometimes need to open a window; now we continued to sit dressed as for the street and we still felt cold.
Our experiment with the stove told us that we were going to suffer very much during the winter and after examining the situation we came to the unhappy conclusion that our nice, big, beautiful stove, because of its design, required large amounts of fuel and when it was inadequately stoked most of the little heat it produced vanished up the chimney and the clay firebricks never accumulated sufficient heat to radiate warmth into the surrounding atmosphere. We therefore bought a small, simple, iron stove, stood it in the centre of the room and connected its chimney to the chimney of the now idle big stove. The arrangement was neither comfortable nor attractive - the chimney wasn't all that stable and we had to tie it with iron wire - but the stove itself warmed up quickly and it was sufficient to fuel it with some paper for the chimney to become glowing hot and for the heat to spread through the room. The new iron stove was also used for cooking and the room filled with steam and the aromas of a kitchen. The only problem was that the stove didn't hold its heat; it would become so hot that it would be impossible to get too close to it but the moment that whatever fuel had been put inside was used up, the stove cooled down rapidly and the cold returned in its full intensity. More than that, the heat that was generated by the stove could only be felt quite close up; the moment that you moved away slightly, you became wrapped in a blanket of cold air, as if the warmth of the stove had been a momentary illusion. In order to warm the room it would have been necessary to keep the stove fuelled night and day - and that we couldn't permit ourselves to do. Most of the day we spent frozen with the cold. Only during certain hours did we allow ourselves the luxury of keeping warm. We slept or lay in bed, covered to the tips of our noses with blankets until a late hour. Only then would our mother fuel the stove and we would all jump from our beds to the fire, everyone trying to get a good position.
I did well out of it: I slept in the guest room and I was the first to see my mother preparing the fire, so I could get there first. Yet there was another reason why I was an early riser: at ten o'clock I had to be at Muranowska Square in order to hear the news being broadcast on the loudspeakers. At home they made fun of me because I insisted on running, in the freezing cold of minus twenty, to listen to the radio and my mother would beg of me not to do it but I felt compelled to draw information from whatever source was available. Deep within me, I hoped that something good would happen which would change all our lives - and that I would be the one to carry the news home.
I was not the only one. There, in the square, every morning, gathered quite a few other men to listen to the news brought by the German administration. After listening to the news I would go for a stroll through the surrounding streets, sometimes going by way of Muranowska Street, sometimes through Mila Street in the direction of Zamenhof Street but mostly to Nalewki, where I loved to walk its whole length. People strode through the streets with rapid steps, their faces buried deep in their coat collars so that it was impossible to identify them. Gossips and others stood in the doorways, hopping from foot to foot. Beggars, among them children dressed in rags, asked for charity in weak voices.
Now and again, you would pass by someone lying in the snow. People passing by would stop for a moment, moan in sympathy and walk on wondering if the person lying there was alive or dead.
Before returning home, I would always stand for a while at the gates of the ghetto, on the junction of Bonifraterska and Muranowska Streets, to gaze at what lay beyond the ghetto. The German sentry on duty was dressed like a bear - over his boots, he wore a thick pair of straw boots and on top of his topcoat a crude fur coat - but both the Polish and Jewish policemen who accompanied him, were dressed only in normal, light clothing, jumping from foot to foot and rubbing their hands together in futile attempts to keep warm. I would return home like a block of ice and my mother would get angry with me: Look at the boy! He's completely frozen! She would begin to make a fuss of me, rubbing my hands and legs to warm me up, and pour me a hot cup of tea and I would feel good: good that I had gone out and good that I had returned home.
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