I always felt threatened by the winter. I had heard so many stories about people who had been frozen to death, or had their hands and feet attacked by frostbite and had to have them amputated - or someone caught hold of someone else's frozen ear and ripped it off without them even feeling it because of the cold. More than once, when I felt my own ears hurting from the intensity of the cold, I became terrified of suddenly finding myself earless or noseless and I would rush home. All the tragedies seemed to happen to people while they were outside the home: exposure to the elements without any possibility of finding a roof over their head. The house was a protected citadel in the face of the cruel winter and its warmth the only compensation of winter's restrictions.
Now, it was almost as cold within the house as it was without - perhaps even more: after all, when we were going out we dressed ourselves in preparation for the intense cold and outside we were in constant movement, while at home such activity was not possible. Although there was little chance of freezing to death at home, the cold was intense and gave no rest, worse, perhaps, than the hunger. The hunger after all, was not perpetual it came and went; the cold was persistent, never ending, giving not one moment's respite. I imagined that, as long as I wasn't hungry, as long as I had a full tummy, I would feel the cold less but the food that we had satisfied me only for a few moments. As soon as I had finished eating, while I was still feeling full, I felt the same hunger that I felt before I started eating, I was ready to eat anything and everything in the world - and it was not important what it was. I had never known hunger in my life before. Food was the last thing that had ever occupied my thoughts or bothered me at all; now it had become the most important factor in my life - a subject forever on my mind, never removed from my thoughts.
The coal was now all used up and we had no possibility of acquiring any more except at an exorbitantly high price. The wood that we used to stoke the fire was also all gone and there were long months of winter still ahead of us. I began to look everywhere for fuel of some sort.
Every day, after listening to the news I would walk to the ruins of the houses which had been destroyed in the bombing, or to empty lots and look for anything that would burn. The snow that covered everything made things difficult. Warsaw knew from last year the meaning of fuel shortage and people had already gathered up everything. My persistence, however, paid off, and here and there I found a plank or two that I would take home. Although they belonged to no one, I was still scared that the street gangs of youths or even the police would take them from me.
I felt a great sense of satisfaction, not only in being able to supply something to heat the house but also from doing something to help the whole family. The intolerable cold continued to hold dominion over the house and prevented us from being normally cautious in matters of hygiene and cleanliness. Underwear we were able to change only infrequently. There was no possibility of laundering anything throughout the whole of the winter and there were periods when we were even unable to wash ourselves as we should. It was inevitable, that one day, we should begin to itch.
At the start, one of us found a louse, then another of us - then all of us. In the beginning we were dumbfounded and not a little ashamed: Us! - Lice!? Devorah burst out crying and threatened to leave if we didn't eradicate the pestilence. My mother tried fighting the plague, undressing us, laying us on the beds and covering us completely and then trying to delouse all our clothes. They reproduced so rapidly, however, that all her efforts were totally in vain. One evening, she made a supreme effort - she lit the stove, heated the whole house, scrubbed us all in hot water and dressed us all in clean clothes. For the moment, it really seemed as though we'd won and not a single louse remained with us but wonder of wonders - within minutes we began scratching again and this time it seemed worse than before! My mother continued to wage war against them and the lice continued to multiply and plague us. Apparently, we weren't the only ones - all the houses were affected. Perhaps the whole ghetto?
In the summer, as the sun rose, it would first shine on the upper floor facing us and its golden rays would gradually move down, floor by floor, until, towards noon, half the house and courtyard were drenched with the sunlight. In the afternoon, the sun's rays would gradually abandon the courtyard below and its golden light would gradually decrease, finally disappearing above the fourth floor, to the right of our own flat. Now, in the depths of winter, after all the snowfalls, the sun returned and shone in the courtyard on One Pszebieg Street but its rays did not reach the courtyard floor. At a sharp angle, they struck the roof opposite, slid slowly down until about noon, they reached the second floor. There, they framed the window of the girl of my dreams.
On fine days I would draw much pleasure watching the progress of the sunlight and the sight of the girl looking through the window. It seemed to me, that there, in their flat, they were warm and comfortable, while I shivered with cold next to our own window. Day after day, I would measure the angle of the sun. I knew that the sun would gradually climb up the sky, higher and higher until, at last, its light would again strike the asphalt floor of the courtyard of our house - and at last, summer would come to put an end to the miserable sufferings of winter. The angle, however, grew with incredible slowness and the cold went on and on, until it seemed to me that it would be cold for evermore.
The winter months dragged by. The short days and long nights went on interminably and with them, the pain and suffering. Why do nice things flash by quickly and bad things seem to dwell and hang around forever? People were saying that there hadn't been such a harsh winter for decades. Had we really been so wicked that God needed to punish us so drastically?
At last the winter ended. Pleasant sunny days came and people hurried to the streets in their thousands; the houses were still frozen but the warmth of the sun in the streets brought a smile to the pale faces of everyone. From the eaves and window-sills, large drops of water from the melting snow and icicles dripped constantly and occasionally an icicle would break away and fall splattering to the ground. Nothing remained of the snow except dirty grey piles at the foot of the houses. On every pavement puddles of mud. The sun warmed the body but the feet were still frozen.
One day, I stood for a long time waiting to exchange our ration card for a new one. It was nice to feel the sun warming my face but my feet, immersed in a pool of muddy water were frozen and in vain I jumped from foot to foot trying to warm them up. I wanted to cry from the pain. They were the last pains of that winter. Now our house-politicians, who had been confined to their own homes by the cold, began to congregate in our flat as of old, and debate, argue and analyze our situation and future. The stream of information, cut off by the enforced isolation of winter returned and renewed itself with the coming of spring. Everything seemed to awaken as if from hibernation and information streamed from German and other, hidden sources and the people in the house gathered it all in and chewed it all over adding their own comments and interpretations. Most of the news was bad: the Germans were reported to have overrun and conquered vast new areas; Mussolini, at the head of the Italians joined Germany in the war. But our political observers at home stated that the Germans were in a bad way and in support of their opinions pointed to the economic problems on the Aryan side of Warsaw. The more the Germans robbed and pillaged and confiscated, the more certain our commentators became of Germany's critical situation. When a platoon of German soldiers entered the ghetto and killed some Jews on the street, it was taken as an additional sign of their stress in having to revenge themselves on the Jews; one has only to hang on - deliverance and redemption are at hand!
The hard winter had forced people to stay at home and prevented them from taking any steps to try to improve their conditions. With the spring, everyone felt that the time had come to try to find some kind of employment, or occupation, to earn money, maintain the family. People ran around every-where, looking, searching, hopping from job to job.
Aunt Sarah and her husband, who had a clothing shop in Nalewki Street, opened a restaurant in Muranowska, near our home and invested all their savings in it. I used to visit there on occasion and would notice that not many people came there to eat. In the beginning, my aunt and uncle were full of energy and hope and were very careful regarding cleanliness and tidiness, but as time went by, things began to slip, my uncle stopped going to the restaurant and my aunt wandered around the empty place, angry and tearful.
My mother gave me strict instructions not to eat at the restaurant under any circumstances, explaining that it was a business and that every one who ate there was a client and had to pay for their food. I did as she asked, of course, but later, my aunt began to offer me soup which, in any case she had no use for and was going to throw away since no one was coming to eat there. I took pity on my aunt and helped her and she poured out her heart to me. Again we were friends as we had been in days gone by. After a few months, my aunt and uncle were forced to close the restaurant and lost all their investment.
My grandfather began making cigarettes. For as long as I could remember him, throughout all the years, he had been making cigarettes for himself. He would buy several brands of tobacco, spread them out on a newspaper, fill his mouth with water and then spray the blended tobacco, filling the room with a pleasant odour. He purchased empty cylinders and with a special tool made for the purpose, would fill the tubes with the tobacco. For a long time he had been leaving the house in the morning, and returning a few hours later, sad and unhappy, without having done a thing. Now, he had again become active: he brought large quantities of tobacco and cylinders home, arranged the materials on the large table in the guest room and began making cigarettes with all his old energy. The manufacture of cigarettes is an art: if the tobacco is too moist it cannot be compressed correctly into the tubes and would tear them; if it was too dry it became powdered and spilled from the tubes. The filling machine, too, had to be filled just right and operated with caution. My grandfather sat at the table, now full of cigarettes, and carefully arranged, straightened and cut their ends, packed them in their cartons until eventually the whole thing looked like a factory-produced article. I would sit next to him, following every move he made in his work and eagerly helping him.
Since returning from Lodz, I had never seen my grandfather smile. I often saw tears in his eyes. He was a man embittered and helpless. More than once, he would sit with an open book in front of himself, apparently unable to concentrate on its contents, lost in a world of thoughts and speculations. Then, suddenly, he would stand up and say:
I must go out, for all the world as if he had some important business to attend to - except that there was none - and after a while he would return, embarrassed that he had deceived both us and himself. Now, in one swift stroke, he had changed. I don't know how much he earned making cigarettes but he himself was filled with energy, going to town every morning with bundles of cigarettes to sell and returning with bundles of raw materials, arranging them on the table and sitting down to his work. His mood improved and the bitterness disappeared from his expression. In the satisfaction of his occupation he would forget himself and hum a quiet tune. I loved to see him like that.
At home, there were so many cigarettes lying around that I was attacked by the urge to smoke. I had once smoked a cigarette at school together with some friends: we had bought one cigarette between us and after lighting it, each of us had taken turns in puffing it. A bitter taste had filled my mouth, which I could still remember, but for all that I still wanted to smoke. So one day, I sneaked a cigarette and went out to the stair-well. There, I lit the cigarette with shaking hands and took some deep puffs, finished the cigarette and went back home. All at once I began to feel not very well. I felt weak and my strength leave me; I felt too weak to make any movement, or hold my head up. A cold sweat covered my face. I felt a bit frightened and didn't know what to do. I had once had a similar feeling but much less severe, when my sister had cut her finger and I had seen the blood flowing onto her hand. Then, too, I had suddenly felt very weak and my face had paled; they laughed at me at home and said that I had only to see a drop of blood and I was ready to faint. Now my sensations were stronger and more prolonged. I lay on my bed, my whole body stuck to it, feeling as if I were lying in a thick porridge,
When my mother noticed my condition, she became very anxious.
Bereleh, what's happened to you? What's gone wrong? Tell me!
I told her that there was nothing wrong and I felt fine. She ran to fetch a wet towel and wiped my face.
Look at him, she said, his face is as white as a sheet. What on earth could have happened to him to cause this?
I didn't tell her what I had done and as far as I could gather she remained very worried about the event. The attack of weakness passed very quickly, even while my mother was still making a fuss over me and in spite of the unpleasant experience with smoking, I still wanted to smoke. Because I was more afraid of the panic that would be caused if I fainted again, more than I was of fainting itself, I sneaked a cigarette and found a hiding place in one of the bombed out buildings and there, behind a wall, I sat on a pile of bricks and lit the cigarette. I smoked it slowly, calmly and waited to see what would happen. After I had finished it, I again felt bad and again a cold sweat covered my face. So I sat quietly where I was and when the odd feeling passed, I stood up and went home. From then on I used to smoke one or two cigarettes a day and was never again attacked by the feeling of weakness.
Again the festival of Passover came round; the most beloved of the festivals, the festival symbolizing freedom, the festival of spring and the beauties of nature. Why was this Passover different from all other Passovers, which went before it? We were locked in the ghetto, our freedom, our liberty taken from us. We looked for the buds of spring on the streets of the ghetto - with no chance of seeing the empty fields, the wild flowers springing up on the roadsides, the blossom on the fruit trees. We couldn't breathe the fresh air smell of the open fields, the forests, the lilac trees. We were imprisoned and could see not the faintest chink of the light of hope. There was no comparison between the Passover this year and the Passover which we had celebrated only last year, even though we had already been under the heel of the German authorities, burdened by their restrictions and edicts. Last year we hadn't been living in the ghetto and the Jews had made every attempt to celebrate the Passover as it should be; a festive air had pervaded the streets.
This year, the festival of Passover was so very much out of place. It would be ridiculous to say, as we must: Slaves were we to Pharoah in Egypt... Isn't our position now far worse than that of slaves? The eight days of the festival, that are supposed to be eight days of joy and happiness, were eight days of spiritual and material suffering at one and the same time. To our usual everyday hunger was now added the special dietary prohibitions of Passover at a time when it was impossible to obtain all the normally available foodstuffs that one used for Passover so there was nothing for us to do except be even hungrier. Because of the desperate situation, however, the Rabbinical Court gave dispensation for the people to eat peas and lentils, items not normally permitted for Passover. The relaxation was marginal, however and didn't help much. The Seder service was a short, dismal affair.
Without noticing it, our situation deteriorated rapidly from bad to worse. Without noticing it, we became used to the new situation just as quickly. The spring, which brought people out of their houses also openly displayed their distress and their changed circumstances to everyone else.
From day to day the number of people whose hunger was apparent on their faces, increased; their cheeks sunken, their features sharpened, their thin stricken bodies looking like sticks. The streets were crammed with beggars, among them hordes of children. From day to day, the number of funerals one saw passing through the streets, increased - but unlike previously, people no longer stopped to watch the cortège pass by, to pay silent respects to the deceased, no longer joined the mourners for a part of their sad journey to the cemetery; now, no one noticed the passage of the cortège. Simple hand-carts, pulled by one man, with two or three coffins piled on top, collected the dead without ceremony. In our own courtyard a day didn't pass without at least one dead person being removed and not infrequently, several. The funerals were quiet, without crying and wailing. The mourners accompanied their dead in silence, almost in secret, as if ashamed that such a thing had happened to them and everyone else acted as though they hadn't even seen - and distanced themselves from the situation as if from a plague. Among the people seen in the streets or courtyard it was possible to see many, whose faces testified to their own approaching death but there was nothing one could do to prevent it. Multitudes died - in silence.
Rubinstein, the ghetto 'madman', wandered the streets of the ghetto and wherever he was, people gathered, me among them, to listen to his acerbic comments. He stood next to the cart, while two men, accompanied by a policeman, collected a corpse which had been lying in the street and placed it in one of the coffins on the cart and addressing the corpse, said:
Hey, friend! Lie on your side and make room for some others!
The people standing around the cart burst out laughing - and the madman continued with his patter: All the Jews in the ghetto will die......only three will remain alive, the head of the Judenrat, Chernik, the head of the Burial Society, Pinkas and me - the 'madman' of the ghetto. Again everyone broke into a laugh.
It was unbelievable! Only a short while ago, I was too frightened even to think about death. I was terrified of anything and everything connected with it. Death seemed something so far removed from life. Now I walk in the street and I see death on every side of me - tens of bodies. In the beginning I used to look the other way - pass by quickly - in order not to see the corpses. Now, I look at the bodies as I pass by.
In some cases, the police covered the faces with sheets of newspaper, others lay exposed; I didn't react at all. Had I become accustomed to living with the dead? If so, I wasn't the only one. Others striding by also continued on their way with complete indifference to the bodies lying about, carrying on with their conversation, their laughter - only making sure that they didn't accidentally tread on a body as if it were some item or other that had been thrown on the pavement. The gap between the living and the dead had been considerably narrowed, apparently - but at the same time there was still an intense and fearsome fight for survival - every family fighting for its existence with all the strength, power and resources that it could muster.
The watchword was: 'Hang on!' To get through the rough period; it was not possible that they would allow the half-a-million Jews in the ghetto to simply die of starvation; something has to happen; from somewhere help will come. Except that no one knew from where - or when.
Beggar children sang 'Mad' Rubinstein's song:
'Oh, my 'Boineh',
I don't want to hand it in.
I want to live a little longer,
I will not hand it in'
Not all the Jews were on the edge of death. There were those who were working in the community services, who were working in factories which were manufacturing for the Germans, who were existing from commerce and from black marketeering - and there were those who had financial resources which allowed them to exist for extended periods of time. Those who had money, could afford to buy everything. They were not hungry. There were stories that there were rich Jews who spent their nights having wild parties.
Every day, I spent hours near the gate of the ghetto at the junction of Muranowska and Bonifraterska Streets, not far from my house. From there, I could look with longing at the free world that was on the outside of the ghetto; from there I would follow with my eyes the smuggling operations of the youngsters, some of them my age, some of them even younger. The smugglers would place themselves in the doorways of the houses, close to the gates of the ghetto, watching carefully the behaviour of the guards at the gates and ready to spring through the instant they felt the time was right. When the area was quiet and undisturbed and it seemed that the German soldier and the policemen were busy with other things at the guard post, the lads would suddenly erupt forth from their hiding places and catapult themselves through the opening into the Aryan side and before the guards could react and move, they were away and disappearing into the alleys and side streets.
Not always did they succeed in escaping. Sometimes, indeed, they were chased by the police who would go after them and search for them, take whatever money they found in their possession and more often than not hand out a good beating into the bargain. The youngsters who succeeded in getting away then had to be careful not to get caught by the police or German guards on the other side, or the 'Schmaltzovnikim'- the Polish youths who would lie in wait and ambush the boys escaping from the ghetto and whenever they caught one would extort from him money with blows and threats to turn him over to the Gestapo. The little smugglers had to build good connections with the Polish traders in order to sell the goods they had smuggled from the ghetto and to buy goods in return from them at a good price with the same money. I would look at the serious faces of these lads and I could sense the burden of responsibility they carried. For a moment it reminded me of the children's game of 'cops and robbers', that we played as children, in the courtyard - but who would ever have dreamed that that children's game would change into something so real, so urgent. How much courage and resourcefulness it demanded of them! Of late, several youngsters had been shot and killed trying to escape from the ghetto but it had not deterred the rest.
For some time, now, I had longed to join these groups of youngsters and involve myself in smuggling. I sensed that our situation at home was getting worse and worse. We were selling all we had but the hunger went on and on. Why shouldn't I do what these other youngsters were doing? The topic weighed on my thoughts the whole time. When I imagined to myself undertaking a smuggling operation, I would feel myself become tense with excitement, my heart would start pounding and fear would start to overtake me. Nevertheless, I continued to think about the idea. The rapid cross to the other side didn't frighten me and seemed relatively easy. The fear evolved from the thought of being among the Goyim on the other side. How would I behave there? How will I contact them? Where will I buy the things that I need? I had not the faintest idea of the answers to all these questions.
What if I get caught? Will I get taken to Gestapo headquarters and there be killed? No one will ever know where I've suddenly disappeared to......Thus I debated speculatively with myself and in the end I came to the conclusion that all my speculations and thoughts were mere excuses. I was simply a coward! After much hesitation, I announced at home my intention of smuggling food for the family and asked for money to buy the items. My mother was very surprised and paled to the extent that I felt I had been caught red-handed in the act of committing some crime or other. I tried to explain that many youths of my age were engaged in smuggling food into the ghetto for their families every day but my mother, broke into the middle of my explanation and said she didn't want to hear another word on the subject. Smuggling is dangerous in the extreme. Every day youngsters are shot and killed, others disappear. I shouldn't worry. We'd manage.
Devorah was also against my becoming involved in smuggling operations. I was disappointed. My mother and sister have no faith in my ability to do anything. The idea of smuggling stayed with me. I continued to be jealous of the youngsters who were crossing the border of the ghetto time and again; I 'felt' every move they made, and prayed for their success and safety and suffered with them when they failed. Once, I said to one of them, that I also wanted to smuggle things into the ghetto.
The boy burst out laughing.
You? He said, in evident surprise. That's not for you! You're too sensitive and delicate. They'll make mincemeat out of you. With your Jewish face, they'll catch you instantly. You listen to me: drop the idea - forget it. Get it out of your head!
Eventually, I did, in fact 'forget the idea.'
My mother, who continued to look for some source of income, one day came home with a sort of grinding machine - similar to the type that one has at home to make mince meat but bigger and at the top was a container for holding seeds, or something similar. The handle at the side was also bigger and the opening for the ground material was also different. Too, the machine had as an accessory, a large flat tray for collecting the finished material - flour. I was so happy about this primitive machine - as if it were an article of great value - at last our house would see some kind of activity - and I was full of admiration for my mother's resourcefulness. The 'operation' had not been easy. One of our friends had put my mother in touch with the owner of a bakery, who was involved with people smuggling grain into the ghetto. The owner of the bakery, who didn't want to run the risk of consigning large quantities of grain to one place, had decided to distribute the work of milling the grain to several people in whom he trusted, among them my mother. The whole thing was a closely guarded secret, so that no one could inform on us. The most dangerous part of all the work was the transfer of the grain from the bakery to the house and its return to the bakery as milled flour and that, my mother would execute. At home, the work was divided between the three of us: my mother, my sister and myself.
My mother would begin milling the wheat at an early hour in the morning - I never knew what time she actually started - and in the late evening hours. I would take over from her after breakfast, when she would leave to attend to other matters. I would work until the afternoon when my mother would return and take over from me again. Devorah usually worked during the evening. The work looked easy but that was a false impression. At first, it was quite easy to turn the handle and the tray would gradually fill with flour. From time to time, I would move the tray so that the flour would be distributed more or less evenly on the tray. When I got tired, I changed hands and it seemed that I would be able to go on working like that all day long. After a little while, however, my arms began to tire and the number of turns that I could manage, without having to change hands got less and less. The further away breakfast receded into the past, the more my hunger bothered me and the work became harder and harder. I would count the number of turns I could make with the one hand and try to increase the number as much as possible. When I felt that my arms were about to drop off with the pain, I would change hands every couple of turns. My mother would generally come and save me just as my strength was giving out. In the afternoon, after I had eaten lunch, I felt stronger and I could usually manage to work for some time.
The short period of work with the mill lasted about a month and was relatively good. We earned our keep and felt more secure of our existence. My mother brought fresh bread home every day and the meals were satisfying. Suddenly, in the summer, it all came to end. One day, the owner of the bakery disappeared and the bakery was closed. According to one story, the baker ran off somewhere, another had it that 'The Thirteen' had taken him because he hadn't paid them the 'taxes'. In any case, our one source of income had dried up and again my mother was forced to start selling off the few items of property which still remained to us.
We had almost completed one whole year living in the ghetto. The situation, unbelievably, was getting worse from day to day. All the hopes and rumours of an improvement were lost. On the 22nd. of June 1941, the German army invaded Russia and with lightning speed trampled deep into her territory, smashing the Red Army to smithereens on the way and taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners.
Another source of hope had been destroyed; from the Russians would come no salvation.
The scene within the ghetto was horrifying. People were spread out all over the pavements - sometimes whole families - half naked, as thin as sticks, arms and legs like tooth-picks, some of them with bellies distended like balloons from hunger. Sometimes it was difficult to decide who, among them, was alive and who dead. The carts of the 'Hevra Kadisha' worked non-stop collecting the bodies of the dead. The children - so many children, alone without their parents; groups of them and individuals - filled the streets, appealing for food in cries heard from afar, mostly to the complete disinterest and lack of concern of passers by.
Still all hope was not lost entirely. People still believed that there would come a change for the better; they accepted the challenge to - and fought stubbornly for - their survival, leaning on the two phrases 'hang on' and We will not hand in the 'Boneh' the ration card, the ownership of which signified life to the holder.
One day my mother returned home crying and broken. She had stood hours in the market, eventually managing to sell the few articles she had taken with her and with the money she had received, had purchased bread for the family. On her way home, in the middle of the crowded street a young man had jumped on her, snatched the bread out of her hand and there and then had begun to eat it without even trying to run away.
My mother fought with him and a few passers-by also jumped on him and tried to help, even hitting him, but without success. He continued to eat the bread he was holding with all his strength, without taking any notice of the blows he was receiving. With the utmost difficulty, my mother managed to save a few slices of the bread. In vain did we try to calm her but she was too angry and upset. From then onwards I always went with her when she went shopping.
The phenomenon of the Chapper had already existed for some time in the life of the ghetto. Most of them were young men or boys, who wandered hungrily round the streets, following women who had bought food, especially bread, snatching it from their hands and eating it quickly - so quickly that passers by, who went to the victim's assistance were not usually able to retrieve the stolen food in time. The Chappers didn't care too much what happened to them - the important thing was that they should eat something. One day, in Mila Street, I saw how a Chapper grabbed the bread out of a woman's hand and began to eat it. A Jewish policeman and a few other passers by, started hitting him about his head and hands, trying to get him to let go of the bread - all to no avail. He held on to the loaf, stubbornly, until it began to disintegrate into bits and pieces and fell on the pavement around him. Injured, the boy fell to the ground and from that position continued to collect as many of the bread crumbs as he could and stuff them in his mouth.
The courtyard at Number One Pzsebieg Street changed. The movement, to and fro became less. The people who came and went, no longer stopped to ask after the welfare of each other, as if a plague was endemic and it was dangerous to get too close. I would sit on our balcony and remember the good times, when the courtyard was teeming with life and movement. Gone were the days, when I used to love to sit and watch what was going on below me. Now, the place was silent and depressing and only the lonely, crying voice of begging children drifted up to me: I'm hungry. I'm hungry. - the cry you could hear from early morning until late at night. The rubbish container, once a major attraction for cats, to the extent that I was afraid to throw anything in there, for fear that a cat suddenly jump out at me, had turned into a centre of attraction for both adults and children, who would burrow into it in the search for a crumb of something or other that they could eat. What could they possibly find there? I was unable to look at them scrabbling through the rubbish, the stink of which reached my nostrils, discovering a 'find', feeling it in their hands, putting it in their mouths and spitting it out again, only to start looking all over again. I tried hard not to look but my eyes were constantly drawn back to the horrible container; and sometimes the picture became confused and blurred so that I couldn't be sure if the things I could see burrowing through the rubbish, were people or cats.
My dream girl had long since disappeared from the window opposite, never to return. My heart told me that something unpleasant had happened there, in the house. Several times, when I had been following her in order to see her, I had the impression that she was ill. In vain I searched for her. There was no way for me to ascertain what, precisely, had happened to her. Then one day, the cart belonging to the Hevra Kadisha came into the courtyard and from the door leading to the stairway in the right-hand corner of the courtyard, they brought out a body and I knew she was dead. Recently, they had been taking dead bodies from our courtyard nearly every day and I had never asked anyone, who the dead were. This time, I rushed to enquire who the dead person was and I was told that it was a young girl from the third floor, who had been ill for some time. I was struck dumb. My lovely, private dream, the dream that no one knew about, this, too, had now been taken from me. For a few days I felt a terrible emptiness inside and lost interest in everything; my efforts to continue with titillating visions involving the girl collapsed in chaos. For the first time, the thought crossed my mind that it would be better if perhaps I, too, were dead.
The hunger in our house grew worse. Whatever articles of value we had were sold to the last item. From now on, my mother was unable to buy us bread. We were hungry all the time. My mother became so thin, that her clothes hung on her like a sack. Tubby little Yankeleh, who's head was as round as a ball, became thin, his face longer and his eyes ever larger in his head. My sister, Devorah, who was always slim, didn't change much. I couldn't see myself but I think I looked pretty bad. One evening my mother asked me, as if in passing, what I thought of the idea of joining my brother Mottel in Turobin. I couldn't believe that I had heard right! The thought of separating from the rest of the family just didn't register with me. I didn't answer her and she didn't press me further. From that evening, however, the idea of leaving the house, gnawed at my brain and I decided, deep within me, to resist it with all my strength. After a few days, my mother told me that she had decided to send me to Turobin and there I would stay, with Mottel, until things changed. It transpired that, for some time, the decision to send me away from the ghetto to Turobin had been maturing in her heart. She had clarified the various ways by which I could be smuggled out and had even set aside some money for the purpose. I didn't want to leave the house, to live in a house with people whom I almost didn't know. I didn't want to abandon my mother, my sister and my brother Yankeleh. Neither did I understand fully why I had to leave. I wanted to tell my mother that I didn't want to leave, that I wanted to stay with her, with my sister and with my brother but when I looked at her and saw her eyes pleading - begging - me I couldn't refuse.
There was something about my mother that never permitted me to refuse her anything, as if she hypnotized me. I obeyed her commands like orders that could not be questioned.
It would be hard to imagine what my mother must have gone through until she arrived at the decision to send me away from home. My father was not alive, Mottel had already left and I was a sickly lad, tied to my mother and the house and if I left home, she would no longer be able to look after me and who knows if we would ever see each other again? That's without taking into consideration the dangers inherent in the journey to Turobin, during which my life would certainly be in jeopardy. It was quite possible that my mother felt that she, herself, wouldn't be able to last out much longer and could see no possibility of sustaining us; and after having received good news from my brother, had decided to try and save me, in spite of the danger involved. I knew that the decision had been taken and that only a few more days remained to me in the bosom of my family and yet I still hoped that the entire idea would be cancelled. Terrible and frightening thoughts flooded my mind. My mother brought me ever closer to her, as if to give me a sufficient store of love to last a long time and I prayed for a miracle that would leave me staying at home, with her.
The moment that I hoped would never come, arrived. I stood dressed, ready to go. Everyone kissed me, crying. Because of the intense emotion of the moment I was unable to hold on to the thread of my thoughts. I stood, like a sort of robot, until my mother led me from the house, holding a parcel of clothes that she had prepared for me. We left the courtyard of Number One Pzsebieg Street - who knew if I would ever return here? We crossed the streets of the ghetto, walking quickly and without looking to the sides, in case we met people who would stop us and engage us in conversation. My mother led me by the hand and I didn't even take notice of where I was. Eventually, we entered a courtyard and went up some stairs. My mother knocked on a door. A woman opened the door and asked us what we wanted. My mother whispered something and we were invited inside and asked to sit down and wait. We sat silently, without making a sound. We were afraid to speak for fear of breaking down and crying and then being unable to part. A young man entered the room shook my mother's hand, examined me from head to foot, thought deeply to himself for a minute, took a chair and sitting next me said:
Listen, son! Listen carefully to what I tell you and if you do as I say, everything will be alright. We're going to wait another couple of hours, until it's almost time for the Polish curfew. (The curfew for the Jews began at seven in the evening and that for the Poles, at nine). The fewer Poles wandering round the streets, the better. We'll take you over to the other side. There, you'll see a Polish policeman walking a little distance in front of you; you will walk after him. If everything goes well, he'll lead you to the main railway station. Don't panic if the policeman comes up to you, catches you by the coat and leads you along as if you were his prisoner. If he should suddenly disappear, then you'll have to make your own way and somehow avoid the German patrols.
Apparently, my face gave me away for the man went on:
Don't be afraid, everything will be O.K. Only don't be afraid; and remember, the moment that you leave the ghetto, there's no way back. He went on with his instructions, saying: When you get to the station, go straight to ticket office Number Two. Our man sits there. Give him your identity card, with the money inside it. (My mother had given me my identity card, together with some money folded inside it). He'll give you a ticket without asking you any questions. The train to Lublin is supposed to leave at eleven but the trains don't leave on time, so listen to the loudspeakers very carefully and take note of when they announce the departure of the train. Sit in a corner and wait until your train comes. When it arrives there'll be a mad rush to get on by hordes of people. You must get on that train at all costs. Remember! If you don't get on - you're lost! I'm sure that won't be a problem for you, though. You're small and I'm sure you're fast and nimble.
The man asked me if I knew the way to the station. I had been there when I was a small child and there remained in my memory only the general shape of the building, so I told him, no. The man wasn't very happy with that and began to explain to me which streets I would have to take in the event of finding myself on my own. Afterwards., he told my mother that she could go home.
Everything's going to be alright, he assured her.
My mother didn't want to go and asked to be allowed to wait until I actually left and he agreed. The tension eased a little and my mother began to talk to me on different side issues, without touching the painful topic - the separation.
Suddenly the man came and said: Come, son!
I sat rooted to the spot, unable to move. I wasn't ready to be separated from my mother. The man raised his voice and shouted:
With that, I separated from my mother, precipitously, without saying a word and ran after the man.
We went down to the courtyard and from there passed to another one. From there we went down into a cellar and strode through a dark tunnel. At the end, we stopped. The man told me to wait and not to move until he returned. I don't know how long I stood there, shaking with fear, perhaps a minute, perhaps an hour, until he returned and suddenly I saw a ray of light penetrating the roof. The man caught me by the hand and drew me towards the opening in the roof. He clasped my body with his two hands, whispered in my ear, Good luck! lifting me up at the same time and pushing me out through the hole. I was outside the ghetto! The cover clanged shut - and I had no way back. The policeman, who was standing near by, flashed me a short glance and without saying a word began to walk away. I followed after him.
The streets through which we walked were dark and empty. I walked blindly without knowing where I was going. We turned into a main street which was illuminated but silent and empty when suddenly, a door opened and a strong light flooded the street. From the doorway spewed a group of German soldiers with some Polish girls. They were talking in loud voices and laughing. There was nothing I could do, except keep walking straight towards them. They were all talking together noisily and for a moment it seemed that one of them had turned towards me while they all laughed but they passed by me continuing on their way. The policeman had disappeared. I was panic-stricken. I neither knew where I was nor how to get to the station. How relieved I was when I saw the stout figure of the Polish policeman suddenly appear from one of the side streets! Again we began to walk, one behind the other, seemingly on an endless journey. Slowly, I began to recall the streets we were walking down.
In the distance I could see strong lighting and hear all sorts of noises - Warsaw Central Railway Station. The policeman stood at the corner of the street, gave me a casual glance - and disappeared into one of the side streets.
This time, it didn't bother me that he had gone. With rapid steps I drew closer to the station. I didn't think of anything - not my mother, not of home. All I could remember were the instructions of the man, which filled my head. I entered the station. The heat, the noise and the multitude of people; Poles, German soldiers in their strange, different uniforms, filled the hall of the station and I, a Jewish child who had escaped from the ghetto, in the middle of them. I walked straight to the second ticket office, passed the clerk my identity card, with the money inside it and asked for a ticket to Lublin. The clerk looked at me, took the money out of the card and stuffed it into his pocket. I gave him another note and he gave me a ticket. When I asked him when the train will leave, he answered that it wouldn't leave on time and that I should listen carefully to the loudspeakers.
I didn't know what I should do. Everywhere I looked I could see German soldiers. Very quickly, I learned to distinguish between Germans who were travelling, who evidently weren't concerned about anything except their journey, and those who were on duty, for they strolled about slowly, at an even pace, their hands on their rifles, looking alertly everywhere. I avoided them but didn't know where I could hide myself, until I saw people sitting and lying on the ground, alongside the walls.
I sat in a dark corner among them. The loudspeakers blared endless announcements of trains arriving and leaving the station, about delays and changes in time-tables. Most of the announcements were in German and only a few in Polish. I listened to all of them intently, in case I should miss the one announcing the train to Lublin. I lay on the floor of the station, my head pillowed on my parcel. I began to feel very tired and wanted to sleep but I knew that, whatever happens, I must not allow that to happen because then I would miss the announcement of my train - and all would be lost. I felt a strong desire to sleep and never wake up again - not to have to face these constant dangers. The German guards strode in front of me, back and forth, back and forth, sometimes so close to me that I thought that they might even tread on me. I pretended to be asleep. What if they discover me? What if they ask for my identification? What if I don't manage to force my way onto the train - or miss it? What if someone on the train exposes me?
I knew that my mother had done everything for my own good but I couldn't understand why she had sent me away from home to face these terrible dangers. How much better it would be for me if I were now at home, next to my mother and my family. I fought against sleep, dozing off and reawakening every few seconds, like a flashing light. It was the sound of the loudspeaker which awoke me again - and again and I was tense with listening.
For a moment I was terrified that I might have missed the train to Lublin - and that I had been left behind. I was afraid to ask people and certainly I couldn't go and ask at the information desk. The fear that I had missed the train became unbearable until eventually I summoned up my courage and turned to a man sitting next to me and asked him.
He immediately put me at ease with his answer.
Don't worry, young man. The train hasn't yet arrived. We're also going to Lublin.
I relaxed and woke up completely. When the announcement came of the arrival of the train for Lublin, a tremendous excitement arose in the hall. In the first moments I couldn't understand what was happening - in one movement, a whole multitude of people rose to their feet. Everyone collected their parcels and forced their way through the entry to the platform. All the people who had filled the hall had been waiting for the train to Lublin and I hadn't known! I jumped to my feet and forced my way through one of the gateways. In a moment or two I found myself standing on the cold platform, which became quickly filled with people.
The crush and the darkness afforded me excellent cover from the eyes ofthe German patrol. The train arrived with a lot of noise and filled the platform with smoke and steam. Again a tremendous commotion as people pushed and shoved each other, clambering on one another - and I got carried along with them, up and into the carriage. There, I ran with the other passengers, along the corridor until I found myself pushed into one of the compartments, which immediately filled up. I stood next to the window, between the two seats. When I entered, I could have taken one of the places but I let the others sit and I remained standing.
I felt much easier in my mind. Thank God! I was on the train! The train jolted into motion and the people who were standing nearly fell over on those who were sitting. I also only just managed to grab hold of something to prevent myself from falling on a woman who was sitting just by me. The people arranged all their packets and parcels and sat wherever they could find a place on the floor. I sat down between a pair of legs and an awful stink reached my nostrils. I pretended to be asleep so as not to have to make contact with my fellow passengers but everyone seemed tired and fell asleep very quickly, I among them. I slept deeply.
When the ticket inspector came, I was woken up and my neighbours who laughed when they saw that I was so confused by sleep that I didn't know where I was. The woman next to me turned to me and said:
You've got to give him your ticket to check. Don't you understand?
I took the ticket from my pocket and handed it to the inspector and again fell asleep. When I awoke a second time, it was already dawn. The train was slowing down and people began to prepare themselves to get off. I stood up and looked out of the window. A country scene, such as I hadn't seen for a long time now, met my eyes. The train stopped suddenly. The passengers left the train quickly. It was very early in the morning. There wasn't a soul in the street and I didn't know which way to go. I began to walk in the direction of what I was certain was the centre of town. I had already faced great dangers. The escape from the ghetto, the railway station, the journey - everything had gone off well. If only I could now be at home and tell everyone about my adventures....
All of a sudden a Polish policeman appeared before me, stopped me and asked: Jew?
He asked for my documents and began to question me as to where I had come from and where I was going to. I stammered and told him that I had come to stay with my uncle in a nearby village. The policeman paid no attention whatever to my reply and said that he knew I had escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, got hold of me by the coat and started to march me to the police station. I boiled with anger.and frustration. Why now? After everything had gone so well and I had arrived in Lublin without any difficulty, thinking I am in a secure, safe place, I fall into the hands of the police. I blamed myself for my lack of caution. If I had been just a little more careful I might have evaded the policeman. On our way to the police station he met an acquaintence and stopped to talk to him. The man asked: Who's this ?
The policeman answered that 'this' was a Jew who had escaped from the Warsaw ghetto and had arrived in Lublin on the train. They both laughed. Suddenly I felt somewhat superfluous, between the two Goyim. I sprang away and broke into a run with all my strength. I heard the policeman calling after me, Stop, you leprous Jew, I'll kill you! I turned into another street and kept running until I saw a Jew. I stopped next to him and begged for help. The man was stunned as if I'd fallen from the skies. I told him where I'd come from and that I was escaping from a Polish policeman. I showed him the piece of paper on which my mother had written the name and address of some relatives in Lublin.
The Jew asked me what was going on in Warsaw and, when I told him in a few words of the situation there, he groaned. He explained to me how to get to the address I needed. As I neared the house I saw in the street only Jews and I felt very cheered. Some Jewish children took me to the house of my relatives. When I opened the door I was swamped with the smell of freshly baked bread that was just being taken from the oven and my head swam.....Complete confusion reigned in the house. It was not exactly the hour for a stranger to enter the house - the inhabitants had only that moment got up, dressed and washed. I became a little embarrassed. I introduced myself to the woman of the house and she hurried to tell her husband that the son of Moisheh - the son of Reb Leibisch of Turobin, had arrived from Warsaw........
Since yesterday lunchtime, I had eaten nothing and during all that time I had not even felt hungry, except for a few minutes at the railway station in Warsaw, when the family sitting next to me had eaten heartily of fresh bread and sausage, the smell of which had wafted into my nostrils; then I had felt all my intestines churning inside me. My mother had prepared me a snack for the long journey, a few slices of bread smeared with something but they were well wrapped up in my parcel and I was afraid to open it in the station. Afterwards, my hunger had completely disappeared. Now, I was again attacked by hunger, so strongly that I didn't feel able to do a thing - even talk. I had to eat some-thing. There were children there of all ages; the little ones came, gazed at me and ran away, the bigger ones eyed me from a distance, then came closer, bidding me welcome. The man of the house came up to me, wished me welcome, told me that he knew what had happened to my father and his brother Feivel and asked me if I wanted to go with him to the synagogue for the morning prayers. When I failed to answer immediately, he said:
Perhaps you'd better stay here. You must be tired from the journey. We'll talk at breakfast time.
After he had gone, I took my phylacteries out of my parcel and prayed by myself. In the meantime the table had been laid and I couldn't take my eyes from the bread and butter, cheese and all the other foods. The sight of food was like looking at the Garden of Eden and if I hadn't been so embarrassed, I would have asked the woman to give me something to eat because I was too hungry to wait!
When we eventually sat down to eat breakfast, I was so deeply immersed in eating that I neither heard nor saw anything of what was going on around me. All of a sudden, I felt a silence surrounding me. I lifted my head and saw that everyone was looking at me. My face went scarlet with embarrassment. I stopped eating and refused absolutely to continue, in spite of the insistent pleadings of the man and his wife. After we had all finished, I told them of the situation in the ghetto and the story of my escape from there; of the journey to Lublin and my escape from the policeman. They praised me and seemed to make a hero of me and I felt quite good. The rumour spread that a youngster had arrived from the Warsaw ghetto and an endless stream of people started to come to the house and I had to tell and retell my story countless times. People asked me for news of friends and relations in Warsaw but I had no in-formation that I could pass on to them.
I felt very comfortable in their home and the warmth they showed me, together with their good opinion of my conduct gave me great satisfaction. The next morning I separated from them affectionately. The man led me to the place where the wagons stood, entered into negotiations with one of the drivers on the fare and paid for my journey. I protested and told him that I had money for my needs and wanted to return him the money but he refused to listen.
We're relatives, he said, I knew your father when we were children. You look after your zlotys - you'll still need them.
With that we parted and I was again alone. An hour passed until enough passengers had assembled. The wagon was carpeted with straw and three planks were laid cross its width to act as benches. A fat, coarse-looking woman, whose age I found difficult to guess, sat next to the driver. In the second row sat a young woman with her son, aged about nine and in the third row I found myself sitting alone. When we started to move, the driver said.
You're travelling like squires! I could have carried twice the number of passengers. Not so many people are travelling nowadays.
The horse was making hard work of pulling us along.
I remembered something from when I was about six or seven. We had been spending our summer holidays in a small village, near Warsaw, called Mechalin. Every day, a horse and cart came with supplies for the grocery store and all the children would pester the driver to take us for a short ride. The man, who was good-hearted and liked children, would sit us all on his cart and take us for a short drive. One day, towards evening, he brought some goods for the shop and we asked him to take us for a ride. He was in a good mood and on his way out of the village, he invited us to climb up and said:
This time you'll have a long journey because I've got to come back here later on.
Pleased and happy we started our trip, passing through the village out onto the country road and then through the nearby forest. It was already getting late, the sun was sinking and the forest was beginning to exert its mysterious charm. The driver stopped, got down and told us to wait in the cart while he went to say the afternoon prayers with the Rabbi who lived close by. We didn't like the idea very much: we'd had our trip - enough! We began to feel a bit scared. We sat quietly and waited. Darkness fell. Everything became blurred and dark. The Rabbi's house could no longer be seen, only here and there a few lights blinking between the trees, seemingly from far away. One of the children began to cry and this encouraged the others to join him, one after the other.
In the meantime, our mothers, now filled with concern, had gathered together. We had been supposed to return to our respective homes at dusk and now, here it was, already completely dark and we had all failed to appear on time. Our mothers called out in loud voices but, of course, we were much too far away to hear. Eventually the driver appeared and seemed surprised to find us all in tears and full of anxiety. He gave us some sweets to calm us down and took us home. My mother was waiting for me in the doorway and I was afraid that she was going to hit me, although she had never done so before. Instead, she only complained. You frightened me out of my life! Go and get washed and sit down to eat. She said.
The woman who was sitting next to the driver talked ceaselessly about the price of everything. It seemed that she was in business and was constantly travelling back and forth. She was also very curious about her fellow travellers, asking them who they were and what they did. I didn't want to tell her about myself and told her that I had come from Lublin and was on my way to Turobin. She was not satisfied and continued to ply me with her questions, to which I gave the shortest possible answers. We travelled on dirt roads, between the fields of stubble, streams and small woods. On the way we passed other wagons, loaded down with fresh mown hay and I filled my lungs with the smell that I loved so much. We passed villages, either close by or farther off. I gazed at the farmers, the women and the bare-footed children. The driver called out greetings to all of them and, here and there, exchanged a word or two and a smile. Did he know them all? We turned into a side road. From a distance, I saw a village. When I asked if that was Turobin, my companions answered that it was Zolkiewka, which was also a Jewish village.
At dusk we arrived in Turobin.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
The Last of the Freibergs Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2013 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 1 Dec 2007 by LA