The Germans had been taking the Jews for forced manual labour and, being unable to distinguish between Poles and Jews were often assisted by the Poles in identifying the Jews. The first victims of these early searches were, of course, those Jews who were plainly identifiable by their beards, side-locks and distinctive traditional dress. Many Jews, especially the young ones, shaved off their beards and side-locks and changed their long, black, silk caftans for more normal wear, in order not to become easy prey for the Germans nor targets for their cruelty. Again and again I was surprised at the sight of Jews whom I knew, who had changed their appearance to such an extent that they seemed exactly like their non-Jewish neighbors. It seemed to me as if they had lost the image of God in which they been cast.
The imposition of the decree, however, had exposed to all eyes, at a glance, the Jewish identity of the passer-by in the street - changes in dress or style notwithstanding - even though an individual may have become assimilated or rooted in the Polish culture for generations. People who had distanced themselves from their Jewishness to the extent that they had forgotten that they were Jews, forgotten the language of their fore-fathers and their customs, were now seen striding in the streets wearing the yellow badge, strangers to Christian and Jew alike.
From the moment that the Germans had changed the name of Piotrkowska Street to Hitlerstrasse, Jews had been forbidden to walk there. Day after day, the Germans confiscated more and more of the apartments of Jews and permitted the departing tenants to take with them only portable items. Rumour also had it that all Jewish residents of the street would soon be evicted. My grandfather and grandmother, both residents, never went out. We took good care that their few needs were attended to and for the most part I was the courier for this. In order to get to their apartment it was necessary to cross about a hundred meters of 'forbidden' territory, so when I got to the corner of the street, I would stop and scan the area carefully to make sure that there were no Germans about. When I had made sure that the coast was clear, I would make a dash for it and in a couple of seconds arrive in the courtyard of my grand-parents' apartment block. The first few times I did this, I was terrified and found it necessary to wait for a few minutes in the courtyard in order to calm myself before knocking on their door. As time went by the fear disappeared almost completely and the task became no more worrisome than going for a packet of cigarettes, as I had done so many times for my father. During the evening hours, when the stair-well was dark, I would run even more quickly and sometimes meet someone on the stairs or fall over a frightened cat - in these instances my heart would jump with fright. I always returned home breathing heavily from tension.
Now, easily identified by the yellow patch, by all who looked at me, the fear returned more strongly, especially so since gangs of young German 'Volksdeutsche', with their smart uniforms and swastika arm-bands, lurked in ambush on the street corner and if one of us fell into their hands we were beaten mercilessly. As I neared the corner of the street, I would hide in the doorways of the houses and peek out to make sure that the coast was clear. If I saw them in the area I would stay hidden, sometimes for a long time, until they had gone. More than once, I had found myself in the middle of Hitlerstrasse, when one of the gangs suddenly sprang up, as if out of nowhere and began chasing me. Fortunately, I could run faster than they.......
I had the feeling that they had resolved to catch me and once, when I had been visiting my grandparents and was just leaving their apartment I had checked the street and found it clear only to have one of them appear in front of me and catch me by the coat shouting: Jew! Jew! He was smaller than I but more heavily built. He called for his bigger companions to come but none of them appeared. In his confusion he didn't know what to do with me and it looked to me as if he was going to burst out crying any minute.
Let go of me, I demanded but he continued to hold on to me, jabbering, Jew! Jew!
I pushed him from me as far as I could in order to release myself from his grip and he fell on to the pavement. After I'd sprinted a fair distance, I stopped and looked behind me. I could see in the distance a gang of German youths running after me. I was unable to tell whether they had actually seen me or were just looking for me. I hadn't intended to throw the boy to the ground, only to get away from him but the fact remained: I'd pushed a German boy to the ground.
I continued to run until I just couldn't run any more. My legs were like lead and I felt dizzy. What will be if they run after me all the way home? I could bring disaster on the whole family! I entered the courtyard of one of the houses not far from home, in which lived friends of my parents. I walked up the stairs but didn't dare to knock on the door. Instead, I continued up to the top of the building where, finding the door to the roof locked, I sat on the floor and waited. Now and again, someone entered the building and the approach of their foot steps coming up the stairs renewed my fear but nothing happened. In the end, after about an hour, or more, I made my way downstairs, out into the street and ran all the way home. I didn't tell anyone what had happened, especially my mother, whom I didn't want to distress. Even at home, though, deep within me, I continued to be afraid when I heard the sound of footsteps in the courtyard. I would rush to the window to make sure that it was not the Germans who were coming after me. To my brother Mottel, had he been at home, I would have told everything. I missed him a lot. Day and night the thought of the gang scheming to get me pursued me. I searched for another route to get to my grandfather's house without having to use the dangerous section and when my mother next sent me there, I made my way through side streets until I found myself at a point in Hitlerstrasse which was immediately opposite their home. From there I needed only to cross the street and the danger was considerably less. From then on this was the route the whole family used.
After a period of strong rains and stormy winds, it snowed for a whole night and painted the town white. The wind dropped but snow-flakes continued to drift down from the grey skies. Every year, regularly, my mother would wake us in the morning after the first snow so that we could look at the white envelope that had covered the world. I would jump from my bed and run to the window to stand there for long minutes, hypnotized by the fascinating sight, experiencing each year the beautiful scene, as if I were seeing it for the first time. With the snow, a silence also descended on the world and everything took on the nature of a silent film - people walked as if on tip-toe, with soundless footsteps; the carriages and wagons rolled along slowly and quietly; only here and there was heard the neighing of horses. It wasn't long before the sleighs made their appearance and they, too, glided on the white carpet, almost silently, while the horses drawing them filled the air with the monotonous sound of the bells tied around their necks, to warn passers-by of their approach. Instead of returning home at the end of school, I used to love to wander in the streets and absorb the special atmosphere of the first snow, until the cold penetrated my bones and forced me to run home and sit before the blazing fire. My mother used to say:
The boy's frozen like a block of ice.
For children, these were days of real fun and games of all sorts: we would make snowmen in the courtyards, have snowball fights, slide on toboggans, skis, a piece of board or even the soles of our shoes, if nothing better was available, knowing a well-warmed house was waiting for us!
Not every day did the snow come down quietly and peacefully: sometimes there were wild storms when our faces were plastered with large, wet snow-flakes that stung like whip-lashes. The pavements became as smooth as glass and walking was difficult and dangerous. Many people would slip and fall, even though they walked carefully, close to the walls of the buildings, protected somewhat from the attempts of the wind to bowl them over. Everyone hurried home to what was a haven of warmth and safety.
During the long winter evenings, with the biting frost outside, the family spent a lot of time together in the warm house, where one could walk around with nothing on. Guests were greeted with shouts of pleasure and we would all enjoy eating the delicacies that my father would bring home - most of all I loved the hot beigels, the different types of sausages, the smoked meat and the halvah that he would buy for us. The usual evening meal, with its set table and polite rules, would be forgotten. We would all eat, grabbing whatever came to hand and drinking hot tea. In weather like that it was a crime to let a dog out.
This year, like all the previous years, the snow came. Everything was covered in white and I again stood in front of the window looking at the wonderful sight that nature had created for me in one night. This year, though, my heart was filled with pain. Where was the magic of previous years? Why didn't the snow, this year, bring its usual message of happiness and pleasure? I wanted to believe that what had happened in the last few months was nothing more than a devastating nightmare, that everything would return to its rightful place as before; I wondered to myself what I should do when I awoke from this nightmare - should I tell anyone of it? I continued to look at the drifting snow......but the expected awakening did not come and the nightmare continued, a harbinger of unimaginable evils not yet dreamed of by Man..............
A letter arrived from Mottel. My brother wrote that he had been released from prison camp but on the way home had fallen ill and had to be hospitalized in Krakow. At the moment he was staying with a Jewish family, where they were looking after him until he was well enough to complete his journey home. The house became noisy with shouts of uninhibited joy. For the moment it was as if all our troubles had been forgotten: Mottel was coming home! For all the happiness, deep inside me there was a gnawing little pain that troubled and angered me. I was even a little afraid of the moment of Mottel's entry into the house - alone and without my father. My mother was suddenly confused, first running around the house, then standing still pondering, talking to herself, not knowing what to do - should she go to Krakow and bring Mottel back home? Who knows, perhaps he's not yet able to travel alone - or at all? Perhaps he isn't well enough yet? What if he's already left Krakow and is about to knock on the door at any moment? Nobody could say how long his letter took to get to us. The problem was solved that same day when we received a telegram from him telling us that he would be home the following day. My mother immediately recovered her usual composure, rushed out to buy whatever food and delicacies it was possible to lay hands on and the kitchen took on the special, frantic atmosphere of holiday time. Pleasant aromas spread throughout the whole house. My mother didn't stop talking about the suffering that Mottel must surely have endured.
When he arrives home, we must spoil him a little, she said, make sure he enjoys himself a bit after all he's been through; who knows what his state of health is really like? After all he's only a child, for all that.
She concentrated all her energies on the preparation of all his favourite foods and while she was doing so, she spoke to herself out loud. It was warm and pleasant in the kitchen and we all sat round the table watching her work.
She turned to us and said:
I don't know what to do. From his letters, I don't think that Mottel has any idea of what has happened to your father. Now he's coming home from his own personal hell! How can we tell him that his father is no more? We have to give him the chance to recover a little from his experiences. In the meantime we'll tell him that we've received greetings from Daddy and that at present he's in Russia; later......well, we'll see. My mother looked us both in the eyes as if waiting for some kind of agreement for her suggestion. Both Devorah and I remained silent; neither of us knew what to say.
That night, I tried to visualize to myself the meeting with my brother. Only about four months ago, my father and brother had left the house together but how far away it all seemed now and how much had happened in the meantime. Would the 'same' Mottel return as the one who had gone away? Would it be the same big brother, the one who spent the summer holiday together with us in the country, the brother who sat with me in the forest and carved a stick for me from a branch of the poplar tree better than anyone else could have done? I was scared of the encounter. I wasn't at all sure of how to act or react to the impending meeting. My mother only said that we had to try to make Mottel happy - but how?
Early the next morning, I went down to the street and stood myself next to the gate leading into our courtyard. It wasn't all that cold. The frost had eased up a bit. The greyish snow, that had begun to thaw, turned the streets and pavements to muddy puddles. Large drops of water and pieces of melting icicles dropped from the eaves and window-sills, spattering the pavement or falling onto the heads of passers-by. My eyes followed and examined every person who came towards me - every tram that stopped to allow passengers to alight. Although the frost had lessened somewhat, it was still sufficiently intense to penetrate my shoes and the sole of my feet, reaching my very bones it seemed, and all parts of my body, squeezing my heart. I hopped from foot to foot in a useless effort to keep warm. Now and again, I had to run home to warm myself up but very soon I returned to my vigil. All of a sudden I saw him - my brother - on a tram that was approaching the stop. I saw and recognized his head from among all the other heads on the platform of the tram, his eyes searching. Our gazes crossed and locked. He stood close to the edge of the tram's platform and as he saw me he took one step forward before the tram had stopped - he simply forgot, in the excitement of the moment, precisely where he was and when he saw me, hurried towards me. For a fraction of a second he gave the impression that he was walking on air, the next instant, he was spread-eagled on the muddy pavement.
I ran to him, helping him up. One or two people stopped to watch us and a loud voice rebuked him for getting off the tram incautiously, before it had stopped. My brother stood up, picked up his suitcase and the two of us entered our courtyard and house.
After an emotional minute or two of hugs and kisses, an embarrassed silence came down. We didn't know how, or with what, to open a conversation. Mother laid the table, placing upon it all the good things she had prepared.
My eyes measured my brother; it seemed to me he had grown taller and thinner. His head was shaved and his look was strange. Somehow, he seemed a stranger among us. His eyes examined every corner of the room as if he didn't know his own home. Will it really be my brother and friend who, eventually, will return to us? Will I be able to confide in him as in the past? My mother asked him about his health and why he had been hospitalized. He explained that while he was still in the prison camp, he caught some kind of infection and developed a high temperature. He was taken to a small village hospital, somewhere in Germany. He described the hospital in detail, its order, cleanliness and the quiet that reigned there; the excellent treatment he received from the doctors and nurses, whom he recalled by name, although the German sounding names rang strangely in our ears.
Mottel related his story, with pauses from time to time, during which he concentrated mainly on eating. He ate an enormous quantity of the food, so much so, that my mother warned him that, perhaps he was eating too much and it would be better to take it a little bit easy in the beginning. Mottel agreed with her, but nevertheless took another bread-roll which he spread thickly with butter, saying with a smile:
Oh! That tastes so good!
While he was still in hospital, he continued to relate, an order came to return him to the camp because they were preparing to release all the Poles and repatriate them. The doctor who was treating Mottel protested, saying that he was not well enough for the journey, that his leg was not healed sufficiently and he must stay in hospital until he was better. The camp headquarters insisted, however, and Mottel was returned to the camp from which he had been sent, still ill, and then sent on by train to Poland. On the way, his condition deteriorated and in Krakow he was re-hospitalized in the Jewish hospital there. At the time, there was some danger that they may have had to amputate his left leg but the doctors managed to control the infection and save the leg. While he was recovering, Mottel told us, he was visited by an unknown woman nearly every day who worried about his needs and looked after him with great dedication. When he was well enough to leave the hospital, she took him home with her and refused to allow him to travel home until he had recovered sufficiently.
We sat and listened to Mottel's exciting stories and deep inside me I was a little jealous that, unlike me, he had been in so many places and had so many varied and strange experiences. Then suddenly, at the end of an hour-long story, he asked.
Is there any information about Dad?
A strained silence greeted the question and hung suspended in the room until I almost felt that I could hear my heart beating.
Yes, answered my mother, we received greetings from him through a man who had seen him in the Russian occupied Poland but since then we haven't heard anything. They are saying that many refugees have been sent by the Russians to Siberia and from there it's really hard to get information....
I couldn't look my brother in the eyes. My sister dropped her gaze to the floor and tears gathered in her eyes. My brother nodded his head, his eyes riveted to the plate before him but said nothing. I expected him to ask questions about our father, tell us about the start of their journey to Warsaw and the circumstances of their separation from each other. Mottel sat silent like one whose thoughts were elsewhere and after a moment's silence asked how we were managing. Only yesterday I was full of anxiety for the moment which I knew would come, that we would start talking about our father. I was sure that we would not be able to withhold the information and that almost immediately it would become known to Mottel that our father was dead. How easy it had all proved to be! My brother asked - and my mother lied - and Mottel accepted the lie at its face value, without asking additional questions, as if the topic was of minimal importance. The thought occurred to me that all was not well with my brother's mind; I had heard that when people went through trying experiences, their behaviour changed and they act strangely. I was filled with fear.
Mottel is tired from his journey. He must rest, said my mother and suggested to him that he go and lie down. My brother stood up, laid his hand on my shoulder, smiling at me with a friendly look and went to his room.
Mottel fell asleep; we continued to sit in the kitchen.
Thank God Mottel didn't ask any more questions, said my mother.
Mottel didn't seem concerned at all, about our father, complained Devorah somewhat bitterly and not a little angrily, he almost ignored the subject entirely!
Look, children, our mother pointed out, Mottel has just returned home after months of suffering that we know nothing about. Did you see how thin he is and how he fell on the food? I think he's been hungry for a very long time. We've got to give him time to readjust himself to normal life at home. We won't be able to keep the secret from him for too long - he'll have to be told. Perhaps he doesn't want to burden us with questions that he thinks may be difficult for us to answer.
My brother's home-coming presented us with the opportunity of having a really good meal, such as we hadn't had for quite some time. The atmosphere at home became a little easier. Our casual questions on Germany and life in the prisoner-of-war camp, Mottel answered in an off-hand fashion, more than once in a light hearted - almost hilarious - way, which caused peals of laughter. Only later on, when some of our neighbors came to visit and we were all sitting and drinking tea, did he begin to tell his story without being asked.
I had already heard quite a few stories about the escape to Warsaw and its horrors but not in such precise and graphic detail as Mottel now told us. As I listened to him, I saw appearing before me, the retreating Polish army in complete disarray, the German aircraft diving overhead, the people trying to save themselves, looking for some kind of cover from the attack, trapped by the machine-gun fire from above and falling like flies. With pride, Mottel told us about my father who, as an experienced soldier from the last war, would drag Mottel to the side of the road and make him lie down as soon as he heard the faintest sound of an approaching aircraft. Although he warned the others to do so as well, not many of them heeded his advice. My father also instructed Mottel not to lie close to him, so that, if - God forbid - one of them should be hit, then at least there was some chance that the other, being a few feet away, would escape. One day, my father said to Mottel that it had been a mistake to leave home: he should never have left my mother alone with three other young children to fend for herself.
The closer Mottel came to the fateful day when they were caught by the Germans, the greater the tension we all felt. The flow of words, spilling from Mottel's mouth faltered and stopped and he sat, silent, totally immersed in his own thoughts. For a moment, I thought that he wouldn't continue but suddenly he started talking again. That same night the ground shook from the intensity of the bombing and they could hear the salvos of firing from different types of guns. My father knew the different sounds of the explosions and told Mottel: That's cannon; that's mortar; and that - heavy machine-gun. According to my father, the front line was very close to them at the time, but so was Warsaw; just one more effort and they would get there. They won't get into Warsaw quite so easily..
Again Mottel fell silent and started talking only after quite some few minutes had gone by, looking at us and saying on the verge of tears: It was my fault! Dad wanted to keep running in the night. If we had done so we would almost certainly have got to Warsaw but I just couldn't put one foot in front of the other. At every step I was sure that I was going to faint from the pain. Dad was also in trouble from his feet but he wanted to continue. I wouldn't let him. I just wasn't able to go on. So, we lay down to rest...and fell asleep. We woke at dawn with shouts in our ears: 'Germans! Germans!' There was the most terrible panic. Germans appeared from everywhere. A long convoy of German vehicles was moving along the road and you could hear the sound of shooting from all directions. People were running in panic like a stampeding herd and trampling on anyone not quick enough to get out of the way. In the end, they just stopped and sat at the roadside from lack of leadership.
Later on the Germans came and, walking between the people, began to separate those who were wearing army uniforms and those who in any case seemed young enough to be in the army, concentrating them in groups away from the others. For some reason, I don't know why, one of the Germans who was standing about fifty meters away, shouted at us:
When Dad asked: 'Me?' The German answered, 'Yes, it's you I want!' Dad stood up and I got up together with him but he told me not to move.
'You stay here, don't stand up. He didn't ask for you.' I sat down again but the German shouted at me:
'You come as well!'
They took us and the others to a place where they were holding all the prisoners under guard. The German who had picked out Dad ordered him to follow and marched him off; leaving me with the other prisoners. That was the last that I saw of Dad.
Everything that my brother had said fitted in with the information that we had gathered and further confirmed the story of his likely death as told by my mother's informant. All those present in the room, except of course Mottel himself, knew of my father's fate. Embarrassed and confused we pretended that he was still alive. Our terrible secret created a barrier between us and my brother. In an attempt to reduce the tension a little, my mother said.
Let's hope that we hear some good news, soon.
I was surprised with the ease and simplicity with which she told the lie and the innocence with which Mottel accepted it without question or doubt. My mother asked Mottel to continue with his story. Although he agreed and started to do so, it was clear that he was now doing it without the same resolve as before, his thoughts and words were less organized and very often we had to urge him on. He told us about the prison camp where he had been, the suffering, the hunger and the different punishments - mostly executions - the Germans inflicted upon them. As for himself, he claimed that the treatment he received was relatively good. He was so young that everyone considered him a child and helped him. Even the German soldiers behaved towards him somewhat more mildly.
Everything that he added was couched in very general terms and briefly stated. His face wore a strange, frozen expression, his thoughts as if on far away places and events unknown to any of us.
Life in our home - the daily routine, the meals, the behaviour and the attitudes of each of us, had completely changed. Now there was a man in the house; now there was someone to rely on. I felt that a heavy weight had been removed from me, that now my brother had come back, I could return to being a youngster. My brother and mother spent long hours debating our financial status. My mother now had someone with whom she could share responsibility. One thing only did not return to its former state - the friendly and brotherly relationship between Mottel and myself.
Mottel had changed: he had suddenly matured, sometimes seeming like a stranger in my eyes. The dream that I had cherished - of pouring out my troubles to my big brother, when he returns, to find a little comfort in the close relationship that we had always shared - vanished. A yawning gap had opened between us. From now onwards, I found myself avoiding being alone with him so that I wouldn't have to talk with him. everything that I had wanted to tell him seemed so petty compared to what he had gone through. The secret of my father's death I found difficult to carry, and it stood like a barrier between us. More than once a certain harshness entered into our conversations with each other. One day my sister blurted out:
If Dad were alive...... and for a moment tension and stupefaction reigned, then she saved the situation by saying:
If Dad were alive with us here and now....There were other, similar incidents of this nature which we also managed to scrape out of at the last moment. Nevertheless, from hour to hour it was getting more and more difficult to live with and maintain the lie. I also couldn't understand how it was that my brother didn't realize that he was being lied to and on the other hand why, when my father was mentioned he, himself, avoided the conversation and turned it to other topics.
Then, one evening, without any special, apparent reason, without any forewarning of any kind, my sister blurted out the truth. Quite suddenly, with no preamble and in the middle of supper, she shouted:
Enough of this play-acting. Daddy's dead. The whole story of the messages we received from him in Russia is untrue...the Germans shot him very soon after they took him from you, Mottel.. she finished and broke down sobbing.
We all started crying together with her. Mottel, who until now had shown greater fortitude and restraint than all of us, now gave way to crying. The stream of tears from his uncontrolled sobbing wet his face completely. Afterwards, when he was able to control himself a little, he looked at us and said.
I knew the whole time. I was lying to you as well when I said that after the German had taken him I heard nothing about him. It's not true! After he had been taken away, I was very miserable. I kept on looking for him for ages and kept hoping that he would come looking for me. I kept asking whoever I saw if they knew anything about him. In the meantime the Germans went on collecting more and more prisoners. The numbers in the camp grew and the Germans kept moving around among the prisoners, selecting here and there some men and leading them away somewhere. We could hear the sound of shooting from all over. We were all very frightened. There were two Jewish soldiers near me who took me under their wing, worried about me and tried to cheer me up. When Dad didn't return, I became more and more afraid that I wasn't going to see him again. I couldn't face the idea of staying alone, without Daddy, among all those thousands of Polish soldiers who had become a leaderless mob guarded by the Germans. I didn't want to eat or drink. I felt unconcerned about what might happen to me; I just sat and cried. The two Jew soldiers kept whispering to each other. I somehow felt that they were keeping something from me. As it got dark they crept closer to me until our bodies touched. Their faces became serious. One of them said to me:
'You know, you're a big chap now; I've got some bad news and you've to be strong and take it like a man. Your father was shot to death by the German who took him away. He was shot together with a few others who were taken at the same time. We saw it happen ourselves; we're sorry but we had to tell; you must know what happened to your father.'
I looked at my brother. His face was sad and every now and again, while he was talking became contorted with the pain he was feeling. It was obvious that he was reliving every agonizing moment of the experience. It was harrowing for me to see him in his suffering. He told us he had guessed from our letters that our father's fate was unknown to us; that we were feeding on false rumours that he was alive in Russia.
Until the day before I came home, I was sure that I would tell you everything - it's impossible to keep a thing like that secret - but after I left the hospital in Krakow, the family I was staying with advised me not to tell you immediately about Dad's death, so as not to turn my first day home with you into a day of mourning. How was I to know that you already knew?
When my sister told all, during the meal and broke our secret, I had the feeling that perhaps she had done wrong. It now became clear that it was good that she had done so because there was really no alternative. From day to day the difficulty of maintaining the lie had grown. Now I felt a definite release and, relieved of the pressure of the secret, I was sure that it would be easier for us all to live together. In fact, we became more united and stronger.
Since our town had been annexed to the Third Reich, it had been going through a process of 'Germanization', German signs and announcements multiplied while those in Polish slowly disappeared. All the rumours we heard that the Germans will leave and the Russians come in their place, proved now to be false. Life returned to normal. Factories began operating; shops opened - although many of them had changed hands from Jewish ownership to Polish and in front of them hung signs saying: 'Entry to Jews and dogs prohibited.' The Poles came to terms with the German conquest and tried to live at peace with the new government. Some of them even did better business than they ever had, exploiting the new and special situation in which the Jews found themselves - they bought from the Jews at ridiculous prices, acquired their property and factories at nominal cost, or entered into compulsory partnership with them without having to invest a penny, giving their name to the business and enjoying control and handsome profits. The café's and restaurants were full of German soldiers spending their leave and free time in the company of Polish girls.
The Jews? The Jews sought ways and means of combating and overcoming the difficulties in which they found themselves, confident they were undergoing temporary hardship which would shortly finish and that it was only necessary to hang on until the period came to an end. There were Jews who hoped that the Germans would be beaten quickly and that when that happened everything would be restored to its former state and there were those who hoped that when the Germans had completed their battles and conquests, they would relax a bit and leave the Jews in peace and quiet. In the meantime the war didn't end and the Germans didn't relax.
They confiscated Jewish property and forced new, restrictive controls upon them. There were stories that in other areas of Poland things were a bit better. As a consequence, there were many families who uprooted themselves and moved to those areas. Some there were who decided to cross the border into Russia and even continued further eastward.
For days and nights, my mother, Mottel and Devorah sat and discussed our position. What should we do? My mother was advised to sell but found it difficult to come to a decision. We had nothing in Lodz with which we could continue to sustain ourselves - we were maintaining ourselves on what little cash we still had to hand; all my mother's family lived in Warsaw; the suburb in which we were living was slowly filling with Germans and Volksdeutsche and we were becoming more and more 'outsiders'. One Saturday, two German officers appeared at the door, surveyed the flat and said.
What a lovely apartment you have here!
We had the feeling that we weren't going to be having 'a lovely apartment' much longer!
At that time, we had considerable property in Lodz; a well-appointed factory with a lot of valuable machinery inside, instruments and tools, all of it easy and ready to run and provide a good living for the family, a beautiful flat containing everything that one could wish for. We knew that if we left the city we couldn't take a thing with us, not from the factory and not from the house. In fact, if we left, we would become at one stroke empty-handed, homeless refugees in every respect, owning only the clothes we stood in and could carry conveniently. It is true, though, that if we go to Warsaw, we will, at least, have a roof over our heads, since there lived our mother's parents.
It was the Germans themselves who helped us to make the decision. One day they published an order forcing all the Jews to evacuate their houses and move to an area of Lodz reserved exclusively for Jews - the ghetto. The area which had been selected was a densely populated suburb where many of the poorer people lived. It was difficult to imagine how the three hundred thousand Jews of Lodz were going to exist in such a tiny area. Although the rumour of the Germans' intention to concentrate the Jews of Lodz in one neighbourhood had been going around for a few weeks, the actual order came as a shock and many there were who refused to believe it. In effect, to abandon the house in which you were born and had spent all your life means leaving all the property you have acquired in a lifetime of living - perhaps even that of generations of forebears - it means losing your place of work, your clients; to become removed from the source of your livelihood, from shops, warehouses, stores, factories, workshops; it implies separation from the synagogue, the school, the libraries, the community and its institutions; and above all, it implies being uprooted from a settled, organized, integrated way of life and being thrown, as it were, willy-nilly, into an unknown world.
So it was, that, on the day that the Germans declared the creation of the ghetto, my mother decided that we would leave Lodz for Warsaw. I knew only that in Lodz, I wasn't very happy, that I felt unrelentingly stifled. I felt full of hope - a hope which I couldn't explain, that in Warsaw things would be better - perhaps I was simply drawn to the city of my birth, the place where I had spent the first years of my life. Whatever the reason, from the moment I knew of the decision to move to Warsaw, I waited impatiently for that day to arrive.
Mottel took me to the factory one day and there was another man there whom my mother had hired to help dismantle the machines. My brother and the man took the machines apart, one after the other, almost without talking, cleaning and greasing the parts, wrapping them and tying them in sacks until what was once a busy, thriving factory became, in front of my eyes, nothing more than an empty, hollow shell, with a pile of machine-parts, instruments, tools and rags, all piled up in the middle of the floor. The two of them worked without a break and, to my pleasure, my brother occasionally asked me to help. When everything was ready and packed, we carried the whole lot to the cellar. The man then bricked up the entrance, covering the wall with plaster hiding completely the fact that something was behind the wall. I returned home feeling I had taken part in something secret and important and I was grateful to my brother for allowing me to be a part of the operation. My mother was satisfied.
We've done everything we could, she said. Who knows! One day we may be able to come back, open up the cellar, take everything out and put it together again..........
Life at home again changed completely. Instead of sitting doing nothing and not knowing what to expect, we were now involved in the feverish activity that was required of us to get everything packed and ready to leave Lodz. My mother made some attempts to sell some furniture and other items that we would be unable to take with us but she couldn't find any serious offers. The Poles knew that the Jews were able to take hardly anything with them to the ghettos so very quickly they caught on to the fact that they could pick up excellent bargains at minimum prices - and sometimes for no money at all.........
At one stroke the house had lost all importance for us; we became totally passive to what was going on around us as well. Even when another family of 'Volksdeutsche' moved in to one of the now vacant apartments in the building, it seemed to matter to us not one bit. In the streets were seen many carts, both hand- and horse-drawn, loaded with the personal belongings of neighbors moving to the ghetto. I looked at them as someone from the side, as if uninvolved and untouched by the whole thing. We were leaving the town! If only the moment to do so would arrive. The knowledge that we were having to leave the entire contents of the house - the furniture, the carpets, tableware, cutlery - in fact everything that went to make a home meaningful, awoke within us feelings of contempt for those same objects which we had grown to love and which had become so much an integral a part of our lives over the years. This feeling of hate and rejection towards those same articles brought a desire to destroy them. Even so no one, in the beginning, deliberately broke a thing. However, more and more articles did get broken through our increasing carelessness and lack of concern until we found it amusing and laughable each time an article was destroyed. Alongside the real pain of seeing our beautiful home slowly turning into rubble, was the fierce pleasure of knowing that we were preventing the Germans or Poles from enjoying it.
During that same period, it was increasingly difficult to obtain coal to heat the house. My brother's eyes fell on one of the chairs and, stating that it rocks and there's no point in repairing it. started to take it to pieces. The chair was, in fact, in good condition and would have given service for the next tens or even hundreds of years, as would all of our grandfather's furniture, but there was no stopping my brother, who fought for the next hour to break the chair into pieces. In the end he won and began to feed the bits into the stove, which gobbled them up greedily. The dry wood burned well and rapidly and within minutes we all fell upon the rest of the furniture and for the next few days both the hunger of the stove and our need for warmth were more than satisfied. Yet still the heart-breaking pain of seeing our beautiful home going up in flames. The house lost all its warmth and quickly became strange and unwelcoming. The tremendous urge to be gone was overwhelming.
My mother ran around all day long trying to discover the best and most efficient way of getting us and our few belongings to Warsaw. Since Mottel had returned from captivity, everyone had started to treat me as a child again. Everything was arranged by my mother and Mottel. Every morning when I got up, I found them both already deeply immersed in planning things and when I approached them felt myself very superfluous. At the same time it had the advantage of removing the weight of responsibility from my shoulders. Together with the feeling of release, however, was the pain and the jealousy I felt towards my brother.
One evening, my mother came home and told us that there was a rumour going around that the Germans were closing the border between the Third Reich and other territories under their control and that as a consequence no one would be able to leave the town. Because of that, she had decided that we must leave as soon as possible - tomorrow. She had already ordered a wagon for noon. Silence and tension flooded the house. It was as if we had become paralyzed. For a long moment we all sat silent, unable to produce a sound.
We have a long, hard evening before us; we've enough time to pack but we can't take everything with us so we'll have to choose very carefully what we're going to take and what we're going to leave behind, she said at last.
I had never realized just how many things we had. On the floor of every room were piles of bedding, clothes, shoes, crockery, cartons and many packages. I loved particularly the special table-ware used only for the week of Passover - beautifully designed and decorated with brightly coloured flowers. Every year, I would follow my mother around when she was preparing them for use and watch as she wiped the dust off them and put them in the place of the day-to-day utensils. All these we would have to leave behind. My mother decided not to take them. Though more than once she found it difficult to decide, the work didn't take too long. After a few hours, everything was ready - our suitcases and our parcels were packed and waiting. Everything that we left, we stuffed into the cupboards so that the house looked as if we had just that moment walked into it to live.
At last, we sat down to eat our last evening meal in our home. The meal bore some resemblance to the last meal one has before the commencement of the Passover festival. After the meal, Mottel went into the other room and, reaching into one of the cupboards, brought down two glass jars full of cherry wine. This was wine which was specially prepared for the Passover. My mother placed a large bowl on the table and Mottel emptied one of the containers into the bowl. The lovely smell of the fermented cherries filled the air, pungent and sweet. We all tasted the wine. It was tasty but too sweet and thick for me. The cherries, however, were perfect - slightly sour but with a rich sweet juice. We swallowed them 'wholesale'. My mother didn't allow us to eat too many, though, for fear that we'd either get drunk or an upset tummy. When, after some time, we just couldn't drink or eat any more it was all poured down the sink. The house was as warm as it should be, the stove well stocked with anything inflammable that came to hand. The wine had its effect on all of us. My head was spinning and I quickly fell asleep as if in a strange dream.
We seemed to be waiting ages until the cart came to collect us, in the morning. We took everything down and loaded it onto the cart. From behind the curtains the new neighbors, Poles and Germans, were watching. There was only one Jewish family remaining now. The housekeeper came towards us and my mother told her that we were moving to the Jewish quarter of Lodz and gave her the keys. I prayed to myself that we should leave this place just as quickly as we possibly could. Every minute seemed like an hour to me. I felt myself to be in the middle of an unbearable situation. I felt somehow ashamed, as one who had committed a crime and was now being punished - but what was our crime? I was unable to look in the faces of people whom I knew and, until we had left the neighbourhood I kept my eyes glued to the floor of the cart.
Four years previously, after a financial crisis that had affected the whole world and also hurt us, the Freibergs, my parents, had come to Lodz with their accumulated knowledge and experience, both of them fired with the will to succeed, both of them prepared for hard work. With the passage of time their efforts had borne fruit and they became the proud proprietors of a thriving and prosperous business which provided for the whole family a secure future. Now, here we were, leaving Lodz without the head of our family and with virtually - nothing; and what future was awaiting us?
For the moment no one had time to think of our tragedy; other worries occupied our thoughts: will we get to Warsaw in one piece? Will we arrive with what little is left to us - or will we be robbed by the Germans on the way of even those few belongings?
The cart travelled along the streets we knew so well and entered the Jewish quarter. The place was bursting with people. Nearly everyone was wearing the yellow Star of David. People were offering articles and goods for sale with nothing in sight for the prospective purchaser to see, or they indicated samples which they had attached to the linings of their coats. The place was humming like a hive. The cart entered one of the courtyards and the driver and my brother took a few parcels of our prayer books and disappeared into one of the stairwells. It had been impossible to abandon the books because either the Poles or the Germans would certainly have desecrated them; they had to be left in proper safe keeping.
We continued our journey down narrow streets with no pavements, between old decaying houses. The place was teeming with Jews who filled the streets to overflowing. They were dressed in ragged, worn out clothes and shoes. All of a sudden, with no warning, the scene changed: the crowded streets vanished and our cart was passing between small pleasant houses, surrounded by wooden fences and green gardens. The distance between the houses also grew larger. There was practically no one on the street and those who were visible, were without the yellow star. We had reached the Lodz-Warsaw highway.
It was the third time this year we found ourselves travelling the same road. The first time had been at the beginning of the summer when we were on our way to summer camp. The fields were green, wild flowers were everywhere along the road-side and we were a happy united family on the way to holiday. The second time was when we were on our way back to town on the eve of war. The fields were already yellow with the stubble of the harvest and our hearts heavy with the anxiety and fears of the future. Now, we were again travelling the road and a muddy grey ruled everything. The fruit trees stood naked after the autumn, as if dead. Only the forests showed a bit of colour - dark green and brown. The cloudy skies above, too, added their greyness to everything.
We travelled along close to the verge of the road. German army vehicles flashed by heedless of our presence, spraying us with mud thrown up by their wheels and choking us with the stink of their exhausts. Whenever I travelled, I loved to look at the changing scenery. My eyes were never satisfied and if I should fall asleep I was always sorry and angry afterwards at what I may have missed. Now, as always, sitting between Mottel and my mother, who was holding little Yankeleh on her knee, I gazed at the pleasant, peaceful scenery going by, while Yankeleh gazed at me with his big eyes and smiled. In my head, a thousand different, strange thoughts swirled around and many questions for which I had no answers. Then, for no reason that I could fathom, tears began to choke my throat.
Towards evening, we got to the suburbs of Glowno. It was from here that we would take a carriage, or even walk to our holiday-camp. The cart entered the courtyard of one of the old houses, that stood next to the road and had for many years functioned as a wayside inn for travellers. Now it was also a point of departure for smugglers and refugees.
The owners of the inn, in order to safeguard their operations had formed a liaison with some of the Germans at the nearby crossing point marking the division between the Third Reich and the 'General Government'. They would direct their clients to the border when they knew that 'their' Germans were on duty. Inside the inn was a strong smell of various crops, skins and other odours. Although it was still light outside, inside it was already gloomy and a number of paraffin lamps had been lit. When my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I could see that I was in a very large room with people sitting to a long table. At the other end of the room was a large oven for baking bread and a cooking range on which food was being prepared. The proprietress hurried towards us embracing my mother and welcoming all of us warmly - she knew my mother from previous journeys. Now, she served us tea and cake. Later, each of us received a bowl of hot soup and a large chunky slice of farm bread. We all ate with gusto, leaving not a crumb. We had no idea when our journey could continue.
We were told that we must wait for the right time - until the guard changes. The relaxed atmosphere and joyful mood that clearly characterized the conversation of the people gathered there, had a good effect on all of us, so we were able to wait patiently and generally follow what was going on. Now and again, someone would come in and update us on what was happening at the border post. Eventually the message came: It's time to go!
We went out into a cold, dark night. Within a very few minutes, we found ourselves at the border post. A German signalled to us with his lamp to stop. We stood behind another cart while the German examined the people and their goods. We waited with fear. From time to time a German would flash his light over us moving the beam from one to the other. When it was our turn to be checked, our driver presented the German with a number of official-looking documents and added a few words. Almost immediately we were allowed to continue on our way. We breathed easily again and relaxed. Tongues began to wag. We could let ourselves laugh. We settled ourselves down and made ourselves as comfortable as possible for what we knew was going to be a long, night's drive. It was cold. The sky was cloudy and the darkness complete and impenetrable; only here and there winking lights and the distant barking of dogs bore witness to the fact that there were villages in the vicinity.
A deep sleep fell on me. When I awoke after a few hours it was already daylight. I looked around me. We were in the middle of Warsaw, at Bonifraterska Street, quite close to my grandfather's house! As I expected, I was disappointed at having slept and missed our entry into the city. It was if I had fallen from the sky straight into the centre of the big city. I recognized the street at a glance, in spite of a few changes which had taken place. Instead of a number of houses there now stood heaps of ruins; houses turned to mere skeletons with beams and joists sticking out like disjointed, angular bones. Those houses that still remained entire hadn't changed - here were the same gates, the same shops that I remembered, here the same Hospital for the Mentally Ill which, too, had been left undamaged by bombs
We turned into Muranowska Street and again everything was familiar, as if I were returning home after a long journey. Of Number Five, the house in which Jewish children had learned in the evenings, there remained only a pile of rubble. What had happened to my old teacher and his wife, - I wondered - were they still alive? At last! The gate to my grandfather's house! The gatekeeper, who had known my mother since childhood, welcomed us, exchanged a few words with her and opened the heavy iron gate to let us in. The cart entered the courtyard of the house in which I had been born and where I had grown up. Number One, Pszebieg Street.
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