by Chana Bursztajn, Ramat Gan
Translated by Leonard Levin
Night. My cheeks burned, and my whole body was feverish. Only, as usual, I was stretched out on the floor, which served as my bed. The cold, transmitted from the ground, penetrated my body, yet I felt hot, too hot. The little straw spread on the floor did not assuage my discomfort. My eyes didn't close all night-such a long night! I tossed and turned from side to side in an effort to free myself from a feeling that oppressed me-but in vain. When the dawn broke, I hastened to get up. I ran barefoot to the river to wash my hands (by strict order of my aunt, who forbade me to prepare food with unwashed hands). After a few minutes had passed, I got up on a small chair in order to set the coffeepot on the stove for the family breakfast. Silence reigned in my house. Everyone was enveloped in sleep, and I alone was awake and walking around in the kitchen. Heat and cold attacked me alternately, and my teeth were chattering. My lips and throat were dry, and I was dying to quench my thirst, which came and went. The pleasant and enticing smell of coffee wafted into my nostrils. It was so very hard to withstand it! Countless times I was filled with a strong desire to taste it, only just one sip!-but I didn't dare. But once I heard the mooing of the cows in the barn, a sign that it was time for me to go and feed them, I couldn't restrain myself any more, and I had a taste of coffee. The beverage was like a reviving drug to me, and I had another sip of it. With an intoxicating sense of light-headedness, I tried to continue drinking, no matter what the danger-but at that moment a strong blow descended on my cheeks, which were burning anyway. Stars danced before my eyes. I fell unconscious onto the floor, with all the weight of my emaciated body.
When I came to, I felt a terrible burning pain on my back. I had black-and-blue marks on my hands from the blows I had endured. Fortunately, I had not felt them at the time of attack, nor had I heard the crude voice of the head of the family, Adamowicz, my benefactor. Still half-naked, with tears streaming from my eyes and choking my thought, I said to myself, Am I not a good Christian, like all the Christians? Why do they humiliate me and beat me, while as for the other children, their mothers…what? And for that matter, why do I call Zofia ‘Auntie’? This question continued from that point to guide my ruminations, but I never got an answer.
One day, when Auntie Zofia had guests-and on such occasions, she was ashamed to show me the favor of her strong hands-I mustered my courage and presented my question, which had not ceased to trouble me. With a mocking smile she said to me, Your mother is in heaven! and went back to the guests. I was too young to understand the sting in her words. Somehow this answer provided me with some comfort. The very mention of the word mother shocked me, passing a warmth through my whole body, so that I longed for her all the more. In my naiveté I thought that I, like my other friends, would someday enjoy a mother's warm kisses, even though for the time being she was somewhat distant from me and was to be found in that wondrous world-in heaven.
Two years passed. The war was still at its height, and the cannons were working at full force. As was the Germans' habit, they wreaked devastation among the inhabitants, especially among the Jews.
One day we saw fiery flames behind the fence of our farm. Auntie! I called. What is it? she asked angrily. I pointed in the direction of the flames. Auntie dashed outside, with me following her. A frightening spectacle greeted my eyes, the likes of which I had never seen! Our neighbors' farm was engulfed in flames, and nearby we saw the Gestapo (may their name be blotted out, whispered my aunt furiously; they set fire to the farm.) My aunt was pained at their coming here but was also incensed at me, as if they had come only on my account.
She put on an act, as if she shared in their rejoicing, and approached the Germans. They spoke with her, expressing sadistic pleasure at what was happening. One of them took me in his arms and gave me a piece of chocolate. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the horrible spectacle. Behind the windows of the house, surrounded with flames, I saw our neighbor, with disheveled hair and terrified, holding her tender baby in her arms. She pleaded bitterly before the Germans, that they might spare the baby. They mocked her and promised to spare the child. When the woman recognized my aunt, she pleaded with her, too, to have compassion on the fruit of her womb, but my aunt did not dare to intervene. Although I was young, I had a sense that this was not the right time for me to ask questions. I understood the situation of my aunt, who was not able, or perhaps had no desire, to respond to the poor woman's request. At that moment, one German stretched out his crude hand and grabbed the baby. The woman thanked him. Now she could go meet her death, and she turned in the direction of the great conflagration. She stopped for a moment and turned her head in the direction of her dearest one, blowing her a last kiss, with a smile of happiness on her face. In full faith that her death would serve as a ransom for her child, she walked serenely into the fire. When her hair and clothes caught fire, she emitted a fearful cry, which did not persist.
The raucous laughter of the Germans was their answer to the woman's bitter death. In the crude noise of their voices was submerged a weaker voice-the crying of the baby. I summoned all my energies to stop the flood of my tears. Several times, when I saw frightful sights, I was commanded by my auntie not to show any sign of pain but to imitate the Germans and put on a smiling face, as she did this time.
We stood for a long time beside what was left of our neighbors' farm. The fire flickered, and only one wall remained. The Germans carried on a lively conversation with Zofia, but the baby, who never stopped crying, annoyed them.
Suddenly we heard the voice of the German: Do you want to see a show? Here's an opportunity! He grabbed the baby by the legs and approached the burning embers of the last wall. He waved his arms, and with all his strength he threw her at the wall. The head of the baby turned into a mess of flesh and bones!-the crying was silenced!-the annoying voice was no more!
All that day the horrible spectacle flashed before my eyes. At one time, I would see the mother, wrapped in flames. At another time, I would see her blowing her final kiss to her child. At that moment I was seized with feelings of jealousy. But these were quickly cut off when the last act of the spectacle appeared: the German transforming the tender body into a shapeless mass of flesh.
Night again. The heavens were shrouded as if in a black cloak. Far away, a small star twinkled and smiled suggestively at me, filled with light, radiant and pure-there stood my mother. Her dress was white as snow, and the gentle breeze was transmitting her bright tresses my way.
I fell on the ground, face forward. My eyes were closed, and my hands were clasped in prayer. Suddenly my mother disappeared. In her place appeared the woman and her baby, wrapped in flames-and my body shuddered feverishly…
by Zahava Lebowicz
Translated from Yiddish by Miriam Leberstein
The accursed decrees that were poured upon us, day after day, throughout the war-years, and particularly in the last two months of the existence of the Jewish community in the area, tightened the noose of strangulation around us and made clear in no uncertain terms what was going to happen.
My oldest brother Tzvi, who was an outstanding communal leader with much experience in organizational work in the Zionist Youth movement in the area, kept continually in touch with the Jews of Warsaw, knew what was happening there, and sought to the best of his ability to bring the bitter truth to the awareness of our community, especially among the youth. While sharing his knowledge with the youth, he demanded that they organize and establish underground defense cells. They should not allow the Germans to lead them to slaughter as they had done-according to the knowledge he had-to the Jews in all the conquered territories. But even after the hostile attitude of the progressive Polish underground had become known, and after it had been clarified beyond any doubt that there was no possibility to translate into deeds the burning desire to organize with armed force against the despicable murderers and their henchmen-even then he did not bow to fate but turned to the forest, he and his brothers-Yonah, Benjamin, and David-with him. With Yonah's help, Tzvi also acted on behalf of me and my sister Sarah, to acquire Aryan papers for us, in order to transfer us to Germany for work.
In November 11, 1942, three days after the destruction of the community, I set out on my way. In those days we still hoped that with the onset of winter the second front would be opened, the front we so longed for, and as a result the war would be over quickly, and the lost children would return to the bosom of their families. Could anyone at that time entertain the absurd notion that this cursed war would continue for two and a half more years?
The gentile in whose charge I was placed, to bring me to the train traveling to Germany, gave me a chain with the picture of the Virgin Mary and a copy of the New Testament. In the train, which was filled from end to end with peasants returning from Staszów to their villages, laden with looted Jewish possessions, I traveled back and forth for several days until eventually I debarked at Częstochowa. While walking on the street there, I met a woman who promised me work, an alluring notion. Still, I found this devoutly Christian city, with the picture of the Virgin Mary looking down from the mountain, repulsive to me. To add to the pain, the task of educating a four-year-old girl was beyond my capacity, even though I knew the prayers by heart. I therefore left Częstochowa and set out for Warsaw. On a cold, dark night I arrived at the former capital, without knowing where or to whom I should turn. When I saw a group of young women going to a hotel, I joined them. I didn't close an eye all night, so great was my fear and anticipation. But the next day I took courage and went, as a Polish woman with the name Władysława Sowa, to the employment office at 68 Nowy wiat. As pale as chalk and trembling like a leaf I approached the office clerk. He seemed to sense my nervousness but accepted me courteously and soothed me with the words, Don't be afraid, girl! Travel to Germany, and when the war is over, we will still be here. I slowly regained my self-confidence and traveled to Prague to a transit camp. In a large group of women and girls, I belonged as one of them. From Prague they sent me on the train to Germany; we were closely guarded until we reached the Reich. In Germany began a long series of transports from camp to camp, disinfections, questions, lists, documents and the like. Eventually I arrived at my assigned place-to Gera in Thuringia. It is strange, but a fact, that in the hated land of Germany I mustered more confidence and started quietly and patiently to adapt to the new conditions. It is certainly the case that the huge, fortified camp, the long line for receiving food, the bunk beds, the people who were completely strange to me, both physically and spiritually, the din of the giant machines in the screw-factory where I worked, the rasping voices of the Germans who supervised us, and the grinding twelve-hour work shifts, both day and night-surely, all this strange, dread-inspiring world made a depressing and fearful impression on me. But I took it all in and tried to enlist all my spiritual and bodily strength in order to accustom myself to the new situation, with all the pain and hardship that it entailed.
Only one thing disturbed my peace of mind, namely the fear that other Poles might recognize me. It was a fear that pursued me as long as I was there.
In the mean time, my brothers succeeded after two months in arranging the journey of my sister Sarah to Germany. I maintained connection with my brothers at home and with my sister in Germany. But fate was cruel to us, and there soon began to arrive the mournful news of my brothers who fell, one by one, at the hands of the murderers. At first Tzvi fell, then Yonah, and later also Benjamin and David. Our sorrow and pain was compounded by the fact that Tzvi and Yonah fell by the hand of the progressive Polish ally, the teacher Widowiak. Despite the deep depression into which I was cast by the tragic death of my dear brothers, it was utterly forbidden for me to reveal what was in my heart to anyone, to cry or even to let out a sigh, so that no one might suspect and reveal my true identity-the terrible sin of a Jewish girl who was posing as a pure Aryan in order to save her life, to which she had lost all right by virtue of the jungle law of the New Order. Only eight months later, when my sister Sarah came to visit me, posing as my friend, with the name Marianna Sadowska, we went outside the city together (it was Sunday, our day off), and there we let out what was pent up in our hearts, crying bitterly for hours over our fate and the fate of Jews generally.
Meanwhile, the months and years passed, with melancholy slowness. The Allied bombers now started to pay regular visits on Germany, with the result that our living conditions became more difficult and extreme day by day. The more desolate our conditions, the more we needed to exercise maximal caution and restraint, not to let slip a stray thought or complaining word.
The results of our bodily and mental afflictions were not long in coming. Gradually my strength ebbed, and apathy to our unavoidable fate took charge of my whole being. The sense of satisfaction of the approaching end of the war and the certain defeat, apparent now to all, of the Germans, who had wrought the awful crime of unprecedented murder on an entire innocent people, was mingled with the bitter sense that our end was also a near possibility. Who would guarantee that our eyes would merit to see the longed-for day, when we could see justice done against the nation of murderers and their helpers, the scum of the earth, our neighbors?
To our further misfortune, in the end our true identity was revealed-a fact that was certainly caused in part by the let-down of tension and a sensation beyond despair that gnawed in our bones-and we both, I and my sister, fell in the trap and were taken to the prison of the Gestapo.
We spent close to a month in the cellar of the Gestapo, undergoing interrogation accompanied by bodily and psychological torture, fearing every day and every hour that we would be taken out and killed.
A short time after the liberation I managed to leave Europe, drenched with Jewish blood, and was privileged to be among the first Jewish immigrants to come to the Land of Israel.
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