Spring 1940 - Autumn 1941
Translated by Selwyn Rose
In Pszebieg Street, a tiny street squeezed between Muranovska and Bonifraterska streets, stood only four houses, two on either side. It was a quiet street through which passed little or no traffic and the few people who used it were 'short-cut' fanatics who found it useful as a sort of side entrance to the city, from which to obtain access to the Jewish quarter of the town. The area included Muranowska, Mila, Nalewki, Bonifraterska, Francziskanska and other streets teeming with people, trams and other vehicles. Beyond lies an open area of public gardens, football fields, the Fortress and the way to the River Vistula and its bridges. On the other bank of the river lies the suburb of Praga and the new borough of Zoliburs.
Number One Pszebieg Street was built of two separate square-fronted houses each identical and of five storeys. The façades of the houses were very beautiful, painted a light brown and decorated with elaborate carvings in the stonework round the windows and between each floor. In the front of the house was one shop, a grocery, owned by Reb Nachman and next door was a coal store; on the other side of the gate was a coppersmith's workshop. On each floor of the building were four, generously proportioned apartments, each with windows looking out on to the street in front and the central courtyard at the rear. The tenants were mainly from among the affluent sector of the community. They did not concern themselves with the comings and goings of the courtyard, neither were their children to be seen playing there at any time. The windows facing on to the courtyard were always securely fastened and heavily curtained. Very rarely, one saw the residents of these apartments peeking through the curtains at the courtyard and its activities; there was no contact between these well-to-do residents and the remainder of the tenants.
In the centre of the courtyard stood a large refuse container, a big door in its side and a small opening on top, covered by a lid, through which the rubbish could be thrown. A small flight of steps placed at the side of the container allowed closer access to the opening. Rubbish was disposed of from early morning until late at night, yet the wonder of it was that it never seemed to be full to overflowing. Every night, when the tenants were asleep, the municipal dustmen would come to empty it. Close to this container was an arrangement for hanging and beating carpets and blankets. The two poles of this were, of course, used by the children playing in the yard as goal-posts!
In each of three corners of the courtyard was a doorway leading to the stairwells of the building and the long corridors on each floor. On to these long corridors opened the doors of all the apartments in the house. The stairs in the fourth corner led down into the cellar of the house. Here, two healthily stout Polish women operated a clothes-mangle. It was hard work, folding the wet, laundered clothes and feeding them in between the two heavy rollers then turning them by hand using the large wheel at the side. As the clothes passed between the two rollers, the excess water was squeezed out and the garment pressed. I used to watch the two women perform their task skilfully, their red faces and the perspiration streaming off them, evidence of the effort they put into the work. In their spare time, the women would sit out in the courtyard, at the entrance to the cellar, talking and laughing loudly.
The inhabitants of the house were very varied - from the owners of successful businesses, who occupied the largest apartments, to simple folk, such as clerks, workers, market-salesmen and many others, of whom it was not easy to determine from what they existed. These latter were satisfied with the smaller apartments that occasionally served as workshops as well. It was not difficult to see that they were used as such, since people were forever carrying parcels in and out of them. However, the tenants in no way concerned themselves with the business of their neighbours. Each one lived his own life in his own flat. Only if something unusual happened, like the sound of festivities, music or singing, coming from the windows, or guests arriving dressed for a party, did anyone bother to ask what the occasion was and make the appropriate comment. In times of death and other sorrows, too, people were quick to discover if help was needed and if so, charitable women, my grandmother among them, would ensure that the necessary help, be it financial or organizational, was available.
The courtyard of the second house was totally different in character and content from the first. Its asphalt was badly damaged - pitted with holes and strewn with rubbish and junk. The surrounding walls were peeling and the plaster missing in many places. A mixture of smells - the pleasant ones of fresh baking pastries and bread, or the caramel of the chocolate biscuits and the nauseating ones of rotting meat and untanned skins - assailed the nostrils and somewhat stunned the senses of all who entered. All the cellars and all the units on the ground floor of this part of the house, were used as workrooms or small factories, virtually all of them connected with foods. In the midst of them stood the Kaufmann Bakery, especially noted for its black bread which was considered to be the best in all Warsaw.
Hundreds of people, perhaps even thousands, lived in the many small rooms filling the five storeys of this second building. I knew none of them and visited there only very rarely. There was no connection between the separate worlds of the two courtyards, even though the tenants of the one passed through the other on their way to the street.
In spite of the fact that it was now full daylight outside, here, in the courtyard it was still gloomy. Morning was always late arriving here and the evening wasted not a moment in announcing its arrival. The courtyard seemed as it was when I left it; nothing had changed. I looked around me. A few of the tenants were eyeing us curiously from the windows, some of them undoubtedly knew who we were. Through the corner doorways, I could see that the stairwells were dark, as usual, illuminated only by a small, weak light bulb. We went up to the second floor where the corridor was completely darkened. The second door on the right opened and.......we were home!
From the moment that my feet touched the soil of Warsaw, I felt myself flooded with a special pleasure, which increased minute by minute.
I didn't know what to do first. I ran from room to room, looking out of all the windows on to the courtyard. Everything was familiar to me, as if I had left only yesterday. I felt the desire to go out into the street and wander around the immediate neighbourhood, familiar to me since the moment I first opened my eyes to the light of day. Nobody seemed to recognize me although I knew nearly everyone I saw and the self assurance that this gave me, the feeling of being at home, freed me from all embarrassment. However, I wasn't given much time to enjoy myself in this fashion: all our different relations now came to call, group by group, each encounter accompanied by tearful expressions of commiseration and laments on our tragedy. The depression and distress became intolerable; again I was thrown into a world of suffering and sadness with no escape open to me. Of late, it was as if I had begun to forget that I was an orphan; my mood had improved and minor things had begun again to give me some pleasure but now, reminded of my father, I became deeply ashamed and took myself to task because of my lightheartedness.
When my uncle Herschel came to visit, he fell upon us with kisses and wept bitterly. There was something a little ridiculous about him - like an overgrown boy crying. Suddenly he stopped crying and started cursing all the Germans for the space of a few minutes, his face flushed in anger. Then, laying his hand across his chest, he promised us solemnly that he would ensure that we wouldn't want for anything. He sat with us for a few more minutes, glancing at his watch constantly, apologized that he had to go - and went.
Then came my aunt Sarah, my mother's sister, with her children and husband and another cycle of effusive perorations began. When I was small, my aunt had played with me a lot and told me many stories. Bonds of understanding and trust had been woven between us and I loved her a lot. Consequently, I was somewhat tense before her visit expecting it to be rather emotional. That never happened: my aunt hardly paid any attention to me at all! I got the impression that all her attention was given over to her own children. It was if she had forgotten me.
All of us were very happy that we had left Lodz and moved to Warsaw. My mother was satisfied at having succeeded in getting us all safely here with what little we still had. It was good to be with family following the period of isolation in Lodz, after our tragedy. For me, Warsaw was like a paradise after Lodz, perhaps because the area in which we were living was all Jewish. I also got the impression that life in Warsaw was carrying on as it had before the war. I liked to ramble round the streets a lot and it looked to me as though nothing had changed - I saw very few Germans and I quickly became accustomed to the sight of the heaps of ruins and skeletons of buildings that stood in place of the old handsome streets that had been destroyed by the bombs. I sensed that everybody had got used to it!
Too soon it became clear to me that the situation in Warsaw was no better than it had been in Lodz; that here, too, edicts had been heaped upon edicts by the Germans and that they had robbed and confiscated property at will. Thousands of families had completely lost their means of sustenance and the number of people requiring assistance was constantly on the increase. The Jewish Community opened soup kitchens and distribution points for the needy and more and more people of previously good standing were to be seen there in the gradually lengthening queues of the hungry, waiting for a portion of thin soup. Obviously if one had sufficient money one could still purchase whatever was available in Warsaw and although we felt that we had sufficient to last us a reasonable time, it was clear that we would have to find some source of income for the inevitable moment when the money did run out.
My uncle Herschel, I noticed, began to visit us frequently, usually about mealtimes. In the beginning he would refuse to join us and would surrender only after my mother had pleaded with him, but it was not long before he would immediately sit to the table to eat with us as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Devorah got very angry about it and said that his behaviour was beneath contempt and he was simply exploiting us. Sometimes he brought his daughter, Fela, a beautiful girl, whom I loved and for whom I was prepared to do anything.
In spite of the war and our special circumstances, we prepared ourselves for two events - the festival of Passover and my own Bar-Mitzvah.
Whether we wanted to celebrate the festival fully, or not, we still had to prepare all the kosher foods and the prices were outrageous and, of course, increased from day to day - when the items were available at all. Each day my mother went out hunting and was happy for whatever quantity of potatoes and eggs she managed to lay her hands on. At the same time, she exhorted us to be modest in our demands and behaviour so as not to provoke ill feeling among those who were not able to obtain the necessary items for the festival. When a committee was formed in the building, to organize the supply of essentials to the needy, they asked my mother to join them. She refused politely but donated generously to the fund.
No one among us had much desire to celebrate my forthcoming confirmation in all its festive detail but there was little alternative. For me it was a bit of a burden which I would have preferred to avoid, especially at this time. A year ago, my father had already begun to plan the event in all its usual traditional setting and the thought had filled me with anxiety; I felt that he was expecting too much from me and I was worried lest I should disappoint him and that I should be unable to fulfil all that the occasion demanded from me. The more so that I was essentially a shy lad and here I would obviously be the centre of attention.
Even though it became apparent that my Bar-Mitzvah would now take place on a more modest scale, it still seemed beyond my capabilities.
There was no way out, however, for certain criteria had to be observed: it was necessary to purchase a prayer-shawl and phylacteries and receive instruction in how to place them on my arm and head; it was necessary for me to be called to the Reading of the Law in the synagogue and for that I needed to learn how to chant my particular portion according to the approved musical notation. For this, one normally took lessons with the Rabbi or other competent teacher from the evening classes, which all Jewish children attended. My mother appreciated my feelings in not wanting to go to the Rabbi for this, so it was agreed in the end that my grandfather would prepare me. It was great fun doing it with him and totally without stress. He didn't rush me and every gain which I made earned a measure of praise from him. Indeed, I learned what I learned mainly to please him.
One day a special messenger arrived from the Rabbi of Pruszkow to tell us that my father's body had been found in a common grave, together with two other Jews and three Poles. Farmers, ploughing their fields for sowing, had come upon the grave. My mother's efforts and dedication had, after all, borne fruit.
The messenger told us that the corpses were discovered in a decaying condition but that identification was certain. In my father's coat pocket was found his wallet containing several documents, some of them still legible, and in his name. The messenger concluded by urging us to travel to Pruszkow that same day, sleep there in the Rabbi's house and bury my father on the morrow, together with the two other Jews, in proper graves according to our rites. The bodies lay in the town's Jewish cemetery and it was impossible to delay the burial. The messenger advised us, from his experience in journeying to and from the town, that we would better off travelling by the kolejka , a narrow gauge, secondary train service used for the shorter journeys between Warsaw and the nearer towns and villages. We had only an hour or two before the next one left the railway station, not far from our house.
The suddenness of all this was a shock. For minutes we sat stunned trying to absorb the significance of all that the messenger had told us; my mother's face was as white as a sheet, my grandfather's so distressed that I was unable to look him in the eye. My mother served us a lunch which we bolted down without a word and without removing our eyes from the table. We were told to wash, put on clean shirts and our best clothes. In a trice we were ready to travel. Yankeleh, who sensed that we were going out and that he was to be left behind, began to cry bitterly.
Our grandfather also wanted to be with us during what promised to be an ordeal but because of his own health, my mother was at pains to explain that it was better not. My grandmother sat silent in her corner, like an uninvolved observer from the side. It was difficult to know what she was thinking. I prayed for the time to pass quickly because the waiting, for me, was un-bearable. But time just stood still. I also prayed that no one would come to us and start explaining about how our father's body was found and that nobody would start talking about his funeral. I preferred that no one but we four should travel to Pruszkow. I prayed it should be just us. My mother also said that under the circumstances it would be better if no extra people came.
At last we left the house and went out to the street. Mottel went to look for a droshka and while we were driving in it to the station, I imagined to myself that everyone who saw us, was pitying us; that everyone knew that we were on our way to bury my father; that it was something out of the ordinary since, after all, he was killed some months ago and only now we are going to bury him. I begged not to see anyone and not to be seen by any one.......
It had been quite some time since I had driven in a droshka. We usually travelled by tram using a droshka only on special occasions, like weddings and other festivities. I loved these journeys and was usually very sorry when we reached our destination and the journey ended.
Now, again, I am riding in a droshka, my brother Mottel by my side and my sister and mother facing me. As usual, I looked to either side of me at the scenery but this time I saw nothing. Everything was misty and vague, as in a dream. I began to picture the cemetery in my imagination; I tried to imagine the burial ceremony, my father's body - but was unable to form a coherent and complete picture - only brief flashes passed before my eyes, from time to time.
Unlike the central station of Warsaw, which was always teeming with people, day and night, this local station seemed very small and quiet, with very little movement. Only a few people were there when we arrived and a German guard was on duty. We stood ourselves modestly in one of the corners, so as not to be conspicuous. The kolejka was standing at the platform and as soon as Devorah came with the tickets we got on the train.
We sat silently next to one another without saying a word. I sensed my mother looking at me from time to time while she was stroking me gently with her hand. I wanted to look at her as well but felt afraid to do so.
The journey to Pruszkow took less than half an hour. The time was now passing quickly. I could look out of the window at the changing scenery as at a moving picture, my eyes, their curiosity unsated, absorbing every detail. Until we left the suburbs behind us we were reminded everywhere of the war - houses destroyed or burnt, units of the German army - but as soon as we left the built-up area, when we found ourselves in the countryside, it was as if nothing had happened - fields, forests, lakes, scattered villages, the farmers working in the fields, lifting their heads for a moment to see the train passing by - everything spoke of peace and serenity so that I wished that I could go on like this, travelling indefinitely. The whistle of the locomotive and the slowing of the train as we passed through the outskirts of the town, returned me to reality. As we got off the train we were approached by a carriage driver who spoke to us in Yiddish and told us that he had been sent by the Rabbi to collect us. The sun was about to set, its last strong rays emphasizing the whiteness of the town's houses. The carriage stopped outside a nice, white-plastered, double-storied house which stood in the main street. In that same street were all the local government offices and not far away, I could see the German flag flapping above one of the buildings, with a soldier on sentry duty at the gates.
The Rabbi and his wife welcomed us into their home, their faces clearly expressing their friendship and warmth. My mother behaved as a if she were completely at home and she and the Rabbi's wife hugged each other on greeting. The Rabbi said to our mother, in our hearing:
You are a truly wonderful woman. God will certainly bless you for all that you have done.
His wife announced that it would soon be time for the evening meal - the table was already arranged and laid - and that in the meantime we could have a cup of tea. The house itself was beautiful and spotless.
The Rabbi's wife ushered us in to a large room with a table, the window looking out on to the main road. While we were drinking tea, the Rabbi exchanged a few insignificant words with my mother and when she suggested that they speak about her reason for our being there, he replied that we would discuss the matter after we had eaten.
The Rabbi then took Mottel and me into an adjacent room, where some other men were waiting and here we all recited the afternoon and evening prayers. When we had finished, the others left and we all sat down to eat. The atmosphere was heavy. We sat silently. It was difficult to find the appetite or the will to eat. Confused and embarrassed we were not too sure what to do. The Rabbi's wife together with our mother insisted that we should eat. I swallowed a few mouthfuls without really knowing what I was eating and only so as not to disappoint my mother and perhaps offend the Rabbi's wife.
The meal finished quickly. My mother and the Rabbi conversed together in whispers and after a moment she turned to me and asked me to go upstairs to sleep as she didn't want me to hear what the Rabbi was about to relate. I longed to hear every word about my father and I told my mother that I wasn't tired and that I wanted to go to sleep at the same time as everyone else. To my surprise she agreed saying:
Well, if you want to - then stay.
She indicated to the Rabbi with a look and a nod that he could begin.
The broad details we had already received from the messenger but we were nevertheless insistent on hearing all the details and particulars again, from the Rabbi. He took from a cupboard a small bundle and laid it on the table in front of him. Then he told us that since the snows had thawed and the farmers had begun to plough their fields, a number of common graves had been discovered. As had been agreed with the farmers at the time, they had reported the discovery to their priest and he, in his turn had passed on the information to the Rabbi. Teams had gone out to the graves to identify the bodies, some of which were already in an advanced stage of decomposition and unidentifiable.
Near one of the villages, said the Rabbi, were six bodies that they couldn't identify and when I was informed of this I decided to go there myself with another two Jews. I was afraid that if they remained unidentified, they would all be buried in the local cemetery and perhaps there were Jews among them. When we got to the village, we discovered the bodies laid out one next to the other. All of them had disintegrated. We searched through the tattered remains of the clothing and this is what we found.
The Rabbi opened the bundle which had lain on the table. A stench spread through the room. The Rabbi rolled the covering out of the way and we saw revealed my father's leather wallet and a few papers of one sort or another, some of which had rotted. In the centre of the wallet was a hole made by the bullet which had penetrated his heart. In the wallet we found his fountain pen, which had been bent by the bullet and among the documents, his passport. There could be no doubt concerning the identification of the body.
The Rabbi stopped speaking and looked at us. We all sat stunned into silence. Then he said:
Children, thanks only to your mother, your father will now have a proper burial tomorrow and you will know his burial place.
I was so proud of my mother. Because of her persistent efforts and determination, our father's body had been found and could now be buried properly. This was something that was so very important to me. According to what I had heard, for as long as the dead are not properly buried the soul continues in torment and finds no rest. As from now, the soul of my father would suffer no more and would be at rest. A heavy burden was lifted from my heart but almost immediately I became worried over another thought: tomorrow, I must go to the cemetery and take part in the burial ceremony of my father and never in my life had I been in a cemetery, much less seen a dead body. What does the face of a dead person look like? How are the dead buried? Does one see the face? What will I be required to do at the cemetery?
According to the rumours and stories that I'd heard, here and there, I was forced to imagine some frightening things. The Rabbi had said that my father's body was ....falling apart. What did that mean? How will my father look to me tomorrow? The stink of his wallet was lingering in my nostrils and gave me no rest. Was it really possible that the smell came from my father. I was a prisoner of thoughts and questions to which I had no answers, I fell asleep, and had a dream: I am in a street in Lodz, in Piotrkowska Street. Brown-shirted German children, with swastika arm-bands on their sleeves, are chasing me and I am running away with all my strength. Suddenly, the street ends and I'm running in fields and in place of the children running after me are dogs and they are catching up on me very quickly. All of a sudden a chasm yawns wide right in front of me and I fall...fall...fall...I try to catch hold of something - anything - with my hand but there is nothing there to catch hold of. I want to shout - but I can't hear my voice. I woke up drenched in perspiration, my heart beating like a trip-hammer...........
I was so scared, I dared not fall asleep again. I kept my eyes open and looked around me. My brother was sleeping next to me and on the other side of the room slept my mother and sister. Silence. How good it felt to have got rid of that terrifying dream. Perhaps I haven't even woken up and the dream is continuing and I'm not in this room at all and not in this town and we didn't even come here to bury my father and I am now asleep in my house in Lodz and tomorrow morning my father will come and wake me up because its time to go to school?
What nightmarish dreams I'm having, I thought. All those stories that the Rabbi told about my father, all the details, wasn't it a dream like that I dreamt a year ago about the death of my father? It's possible that even now this is nothing but a dream, and I surrender to the sweet illusion and want it to continue except - I suddenly become aware of the sounds of heavy, measured steps in the street, coming closer and closer. There can be no mistaking them - they are made by the heavy, nailed jackboots of German soldiers. I become tense all over. The anxiety which I feel becomes stronger and stronger, as the marching feet approach nearer and nearer and the sound gets louder and louder until it almost overwhelms me but the soldiers continue on their way; the terrible threatening sound of marching gradually dies away into the distance.
After a few minutes I again hear the same sound getting stronger and stronger. I got out of bed and went to the window. Two German soldiers, bayonets attached to their rifles, were patrolling the empty street.
I don't know how long I stood there at the window, looking at the darkened, street where, time after time the two soldiers passed by. Suddenly, I heard a rustle behind me. My mother got out of bed and came towards me.
Can't you sleep, Bereleh? She asked.
We both listened to the marching sound.
That's the German soldiers patrolling the street all night long. I told her, in order to calm her.
You've been standing here a long time, Bereleh. Go to bed and try to get some sleep. We've got a hard day tomorrow and we've got to get up. She concluded.
I went back to bed but was unable to fall asleep until the morning light began to penetrate the dark room.
The day dawned spring-like and fresh, a day that normally gladdens a man's heart. A day like this certainly wasn't the sort of day to be going about the business we had in hand; a day like this only accentuated the cruelty of life. It was as if nature was ridiculing us - and with malice.
We walked with the Rabbi and his wife to the cemetery. Jewish people whom we met on the way, nodded their heads to us and offered a few words of understanding and condolence. A few of them joined us. As we approached the place, my mother held me gently by the hand. I didn't resist. We walked along a path, between graves and gravestones. I felt nothing special, I gazed around me calmly. Suddenly, again, I was assailed by the same stench which I had smelled yesterday. It got stronger and stronger as we continued towards the end of the row of graves, where some people were waiting for us. Here we stopped. When the wind blew the stench abated somewhat but became intolerable again the moment that the wind ceased to carry it away. In front of us gaped three parallel holes in the ground and before each one lay a corpse bound up in a black cloth. Now, all doubt vanished as to the origin of the smell: it was certainly coming from the bodies.
One of those present commenced reading some excerpts from the Psalms. We stood, the four of us, and looked at the three corpses lying in front of us. There, standing before the body of my father, I had my first encounter with Death and, suddenly, my senses were blunted and I felt turned to stone. I still heard the prayers and saw clearly my surroundings but I felt, somehow, isolated and insulated from the world around me but able to see everything - nothing could shock me; nothing could bring about my collapse. It seemed to me that I had comes to terms with Death; I had ceased being afraid of it. As a matter of fact - I felt a certain 'belonging' to Death.
Two men approached my father's body and lifted it. With that it ceased being a body and became a pile - it was possible to discern that parts of the corpse had separated from the skeleton. Two other people quickly moved forward in order to give some support in the centre and thus was my father's body lowered into its grave. Then, the two other bodies were interred in their graves. Some more prayers were said and then the graves were filled in.
My mother and sister were crying quietly. When the graves were covered completely, Mottel and I stood before our father's, while two other men stood in front of the remaining two graves. We all said the Kaddish The Rabbi then approached us and, taking a small pocketknife in his hand made a small, ritual cut in the lapels of our jackets to signify mourning.
I felt as if he had cut into my flesh.
I returned from the graveyard not the same lad as I had been when I went there. All the fear and sense of mystery that I had felt surrounding cemeteries and the dead had evaporated. Everything seemed so natural. Another three graves had been added to the hundreds of thousands which had accumulated from generation to generation. I was pleased with myself that I had not 'broken', not fainted, not burst out crying. Nevertheless, the picture of the three bodies, side by side, had found a permanent home in my awareness and would not be erased from there and the stench of the dead hung in my nostrils and it, too, was not to be forgotten.
My mother was very worried about me. She spoke with the Rabbi and told him that she was concerned about my behaviour at the cemetery.
Bereleh is a very weak and sensitive child, she said. in the cemetery, he stood as if made of stone, without any reaction. He didn't even let out one tear, only stared the whole time at his father's body.
I only wish that he had cried or shouted. It would have made it easier for him. Now, he has all that pain and suffering bottled up inside. The Rabbi calmed my mother, telling her that in these instances people react differently and that she shouldn't worry.
Children get over things quickly, he said, and so will Bereleh, now that his father is buried. It takes a little time, that's all.
Back at the Rabbi's home, I gave my mother yet another reason to worry about me. His wife had prepared a meal for us and refused to allow us to go on our way without first eating. I felt that I couldn't put a thing in my mouth without feeling that I was going to vomit it out at once; and this, in spite of the pleas of my mother.
On the way home, by the same narrow gauge railway as before, the clean, fresh air which penetrated the compartment became mixed with the stink of the putrefying corpses which still seemed to linger in my nostrils and again my eyes beheld the broad fields, the forests and lakes.
It all created such a confusion of mixed emotions that again I felt a strong wish born in me that the train should continue on its way, without stopping, for ever.
We returned to Warsaw and there, according to custom, we kept a week of Shiva .Twice a day, neighbours and friends would join us for prayers and Mottel and I would recite the Kaddish. Close and distant relatives - more than one of whom I didn't know at all - came to visit at all hours of the day and poured praises on my mother for having spared no effort and for not resting until she had fulfilled her duty in finding and burying my father. Our uncle Herschel came to visit every day. One day he came with his wife and two daughters, Mira, the elder and Fela, my old friend. All were dressed carefully and the expression on their faces showed that they had been coached as to their behaviour in a house of mourning. My uncle and the two daughters passed in front of us as we sat in a row, pressing our hands with a word or two expressing condolences and giving us a kiss on the cheek. Fela even hugged me - an act which caused a tremor to pass through me. During their visit I didn't manage to exchange a single word with Fela although I would have dearly loved to have told her all that was in my mind. At the same time I recalled that even when I used to have the opportunity, I had never exploited it.
During the first few days of the mourning period, the neighbours who came to join us in prayer would leave as soon as the prayers had finished. As the days passed and we all got to know each other better, they would lengthen their stay, sit with us and bring us up to date on what little news they had managed to glean during the day. The sources were pitifully few - mainly Polish newspapers which the Germans published and the German radio which was broadcast from loudspeakers in Muranowska Square. There were those, however, who listened clandestinely to the BBC and other free stations, to say nothing of the rumours which multiplied without end. The local news was disquieting and repetitive - it told of daily incidents of endless robbery; of degrading beatings; of people dragged from their homes in the middle of the night, never to be seen again and nobody knowing of their fate; of widespread and increasing poverty and hunger; of refugees who had lost everything, arriving in Warsaw from the towns and villages from which they had been expelled - all these things we heard, the sighing and raising of hands to heaven, asking: What will be? When will it all end?
The official news - the German news - was depressing. In the spring the Germans opened an attack along a broad front, invading Holland and Belgium, Norway and Denmark. Sadly, we heard how the Germans conquered country after country in a Blitzkrieg. Yet there was always someone who interpreted the news in a favourable light - that if Germany had been satisfied in taking only Poland, the world may have objected but not lifted a finger. In as much as Hitler was determined to conquer the whole of Europe - well, ..The world won't let him! America appeared to be on the brink of declaring war on Germany and that country's defeat was closer than we thought.
England was perceived as a great, strong power. Every word that we heard on the radio from London was considered true. Uncle Herschel told us that he had heard from someone, who himself listens to the BBC, that as from now, England was removing her gloves and preparing to teach the Germans a thing or two. Smiles of satisfaction appeared on the faces of people. I tried to grasp the difference between fighting a war with gloves on and fighting a war with gloves off. The conversations regarding the state of the war generally ended with a good feeling, optimistic and with hope for the future. All we needed to do was hang on until the end....................
The days were warm, sunny spring days. Most of the tenants opened the windows and the balcony doors, all of which had been tightly closed during the winter months. Heads could be seen peeking out of the windows as people sought the pleasure of the fresh, clear, spring air. In our flat, all remained closed, as if we wished to remain separated from the outside world and when I couldn't stand the heavy depressing atmosphere any longer, I would sneak out on to the balcony without anyone knowing and hide myself in a corner so that no one would see me. Before we left Warsaw for Lodz, while I was still considered a sick, weakly child, I would be confined to the house for quite long periods and I would spend a lot of time near the window or on the balcony, watching the activity in the courtyard and never getting bored. Nothing had changed since then, apparently. Everything appeared to be in the same place as it was before I left Warsaw. Most of the tenants were the same, as well; only the children had grown bigger and looked somehow strange to me.
The atmosphere, however, had changed beyond recognition. Everything was quieter, slower. In the familiar mixture of sounds emanating from the courtyard, the joyful, happy sound of vibrant life was missing from the air. Even the children were no longer playing with that same unique excitement which characterizes children's games all over the world; they were more restrained. Memories of my early childhood began to surface from somewhere deep inside me. Here, in this very courtyard, I had absorbed the good and the bad, the beautiful together with the ugly. Here I had learned more than in any other place. My parents wouldn't allow me to play in the courtyard with children from the street, in case I learn 'bad things' from them but they didn't forbid me to watch from the balcony.
I looked straight ahead of me: to the left, on the ground floor, lived a family with quite a lot of daughters. During the day, their flat became a sewing room and I would see the girls sitting at their sewing machines and hear the drone of the machines mixed with the sound of their chatter and singing. In the evenings the apartment would shed its daytime disguise and go back to being the family home. Thus it had gone on, year after year, unchanging.
One day I was awoken by the sound of frightened cries coming from the apartment. It soon became known that the girls' mother had died. As the hour for the funeral drew near the courtyard began to fill with family, friends and neighbours who all joined together with the girls in their unceasing crying and wailing. This continued until the hearse, a wagon drawn by black horses draped in a black cloth reaching almost to the ground, slowly began to move out of the courtyard, trailing the mourners behind it.
Now, looking at the apartment, I became aware that there was no one working there and no sound of sewing machines came to my ears.
In the flat above lived Mr.and Mrs. Prinzetal, a rich elderly couple who owned a well known cutlery manufacturing company. They had a young home-help who lived together with them in the apartment. I saw the owners of the apartment only very rarely but I would watch the girl at her work from morning to night, cleaning the flat diligently and cooking in the kitchen. Occasionally, on a Friday or festival evening, their children would come for supper. After the evening meal, they would sometimes be joined by friends and the sound of their singing and noisy conversation would fill the air. From my old-new lookout point I could detect no change in the established routine of the tenants and their family but the girl, who, in my earlier childhood I barely noticed, now captured a place in my thoughts. One evening, I was looking out over the courtyard from my usual vantage point and I saw her, in the Prinzetal kitchen. She turned out the light but I could still see her clearly because the light from the adjoining room fell on her. She began to undress and I couldn't take my eyes off her. I saw her take off her dress and begin to wander round the kitchen clad only in her bra and panties. I continued to follow every move she made, until she took off her brassière and I vaguely saw her breasts. Suddenly she seemed to sense that she was being watched and quickly closed the door to the room and the enchanting vision was gone, leaving behind in its place only a very dim, dark shadow. A strange feeling, one that I had never felt before, spread throughout my body. I still stood transfixed in front of the window, although I knew that she would not be revealed to me again. The girl had opened a new era in my life, one of strange and mysterious pleasures, which now began to claim my attention.
In the flat above the Prinzetals, on the third floor, lived a family whose children I remembered well. They were always playing in the courtyard and their mother was forever calling to them from the window to come home - but they would never come.
On one of our first days back in Warsaw, I was surprised by the sight of a German SS officer entering the yard. He gave a loud whistle and called out:
Immediately, a window, belonging to that same third floor flat, opened and a young chap stuck his head out - one of the two children whom I used to see playing in the yard - and called back, in German:
I'll be right down!
After a very few minutes, he appeared in the courtyard and the two of them left together, laughing. I discovered afterwards, that he was one of the 'informers' in our neighbourhood and that everyone was afraid of him.
While still in Lodz, I had heard stories of Jewish informers, working for the Germans but now that I had seen with my own eyes, a young Jew, clearly collaborating with the Germans - and according to reports, helping them with their acts of pillage and robbery - I was shocked. It was incomprehensible to me that his family could tolerate him doing so.
Whenever I saw him, from that time hence, I prayed that someone would kill him. I'd heard that he had also promised protection to everyone in the house by saying:
Here, you have nothing to fear; here, I won't bring the Germans! The tenants, however, were not reassured. They felt sure - and said so - that when he had no one or nothing else to report about somewhere else, he wouldn't hesitate to inform on us.
The regular visitors who entered the courtyard could be divided into well defined categories: the first was a group of singers and musicians - the 'hit-makers' of the day and other groups, providing a variety of different and sometimes strange, entertainment; secondly, were the beggars in their various disguises; next came the peddlers, selling everything and anything that the heart could desire or the mind conceive. Fourthly came the artisans, with their tools, changing our courtyard into a small, temporary, industrial park. Of them all, I most liked the various musical groups and the craftsmen. Among the singers, there was an old Jew, a cripple whose two legs had been amputated and who moved himself from place to place on a wheelchair of sorts, that he had clearly made himself and which he operated by turning the two wheels with his hands. He played an accordion and sang in a strong, metallic voice. He had a never varying repertoire. One of his songs was connected with the tragedy of the 'Titanic', another was about Shalom Schwarzbard, the young man who assassinated Petlura, the anti-Semite, and who was then executed and another about Baruch Schulman:
'Baruch Schulmann, in the street stepped out,
And in his hand a bomb.
Do not cry, my little brother; sister do not weep.
Though the best of all, Shalom will fall,
It is the way of the world.....'
Even though we had heard his song tens of times, the women in the house never failed to be moved to their depths on hearing it again and always joined in the singing. Sometimes my mother would join in and sing one of the songs from beginning to end. While he was singing, pennies and other small coins, would be wrapped in paper and thrown from the windows. Children, waiting below in the courtyard, would collect them and place them in the singer's hand. I loved this singer very much - and his sad songs - and the moment that he appeared I would hasten to my mother to ask a few coins from her to throw to him.
The street performers had many fans; they received generous donations. They would sing, and play, raising their eyes upwards to the windows and were answered with a shower of coins. Sometimes the courtyard was invaded by an extra large group and its members would gather in the centre of the yard and perform the hits of the day and excerpts from the opera. The courtyard would turn itself into a stage and the building surrounding it become the auditorium with tier upon tier of galleries, the balconies full of people, the windows stuffed to overflowing with heads and below, in the courtyard itself, a large circle of chance passers-by would congregate, together with workers from the small, local workshops, or housewives who had abandoned their housework - all of them escaping from their daily chores for a few minutes, hoping for an entertaining experience, showing their appreciation at the end of each number with a healthy round of applause and a shower of coins.
The jugglers and circus entertainers, who also frequented our 'theatre' on occasion, would draw after them throngs of children. These performers could - and did - do anything: they ate razor blades, blew streams of fire from their mouths, walked on their hands. In short, they entranced their audience with the infinite variety of their abilities.
Nevertheless, they never received more than the few odd pennies, something which caused me to pity and sympathize with them.
Beggars had their own fixed days and weeks for coming. Too, each had his own cry and each his own song. There were those who asked for money; those for food or old clothes. One tall, thin woman, sack hanging on her back, would sing out:
Stale bread! Old bread! Old rolls! Chuck 'em down! From the early hours of the morning, food peddlers would appear with their various wares - fruit and vegetables, freshly baked breads and pastries and beigels, straight out of the oven. Farm women would bring dairy produce - the cheeses and butter the work of their own hands. They would lower their heavy loads from their backs and sell cream in earthenware crocks butter and cheese in coarse-woven farm cloth or cabbage leaves and eggs in small baskets padded with straw.
From the peddlers of haberdashery, who would open before us their suitcases, stuffed to overflowing with all kinds of odds and ends, one could buy anything from a shoe lace to a dress. Others would be selling all kinds of cheap bargains - all classed as 'defective quality' or the 'end of season'. They would spread at their feet sweaters, shirts, blouses, socks and all the rest of their goods, crying out in loud voices:
One-time-only offer! - and the housewives would leave whatever they were doing and come running to rummage through the piles of clothes to see what they could find.
The artisans, with their various tools and machines, would lay their hands on any kind of broken or damaged household appliance and, as if with a magic wand, turn it into a seemingly new article. They would work calmly and patiently, sometimes finishing their work in a matter of minutes, sometimes an hour or two and occasionally a whole day, like the upholsterer who recovered a whole suite of furniture.
My insatiably curious eyes feasted on all these things, day after day - and this in addition to the pleasure I derived from watching the children playing in the yard from the early twilight hours until quite late at night. More than once I thought to myself that I would be prepared to give everything I owned if only I could join them in their play.
The Rabbi from Pruszkow was right when he said that the moment the dead are buried the process of 'forgetting' begins. From the day that we buried my father, thoughts of him began to recede slowly from the surface of my mind. At the same time, the vision of the three bodies laid out in the cemetery at the foot of the three graves was still clearly etched in my memory and returned to haunt me, together with the recollection of the stench which still hung in my nostrils. Other thoughts, however, now commanded my attention. Chief among them, which would not give me rest, revolved around the changes taking place in my body and the attraction I felt towards girls. The mystery of ....the way of a man with a maid, about which I knew virtually nothing, apart from the stories one hears among one's friends, which always sounded dirty and awoke within me feelings of guilt and shame. I knew that I was passing through a period of tremendous change in my thoughts, as if a demon had entered into me and refused to let go. In vain I tried to struggle against it; in vain I tried to ignore girls; again and again I was drawn towards them as if to a magnet. I felt I had to find a solution to the riddle called 'woman' but I had no clear idea what, exactly, I was searching for, nor did I know in which direction to look. I felt that if only I could cling to a woman's body I would be freed from this heavy burden of tension. At the same time I was terrified lest my shameful secret be discovered, for then I felt I just wouldn't be able to go on living.
Fortunately, no one took the slightest notice of me. Even my mother left me entirely alone to do whatever came into my mind. In any case, she was fully occupied looking for some kind of source of income for the family and who knows, perhaps she left me to my own devices intentionally. With the freedom of a sparrow, I wandered the streets of Warsaw, swept along with the tide of humanity thronging the thoroughfares of the capital during the warm days of spring, my eyes riveted to the women in their summer dresses, drawn by an almost irresistible urge to touch them.
At that time, my thoughts became centred on a girl who lived in a flat on the third floor, opposite to us, on the right hand side of the courtyard. In the beginning, I saw only her head in the window as a part of the general scene before me and I didn't pay particular attention to her. Then, without knowing how or why, without any special reason that I could fathom, I began to hope for a sight of her in the window. As soon as I got up in the morning, I would rush to the balcony and look in the direction of her window. When I saw her, I would offer her my thanks, in my heart, as if she had appeared there especially for me and if she didn't appear, I would become disappointed and sometimes wait for an hour or more to see her. From my balcony I couldn't see her face clearly but I had no doubts that, in my eyes, she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. From time to time I saw her cross the courtyard with rapid steps and from closer up I could see that she was about thirteen or fourteen years old, slim, with legs as thin as a stork, a long face with a high forehead. Her hair was arranged with a parting in the middle and down her neck and back hung a long plait. On more than one occasion, I would see her face peeping out of her window framed by a loose mane of hair but for the life of me, I couldn't decide which style I preferred more - the long plait or the cloud of free-falling hair. From day to day my desire for the girl from the third floor - whose name I didn't know and to whom I had never spoken - grew. Sometimes, when I looked at her from the balcony, it seemed to me that she returned my look with a smile and I was happy. Hour after hour I would pace in front of the house in order to see her from close up. Once I even found myself walking along the street towards her and it was as though an electric current had passed through my body; I was struck dumb - but happy. Nights, I saw her come close to me, look at me with smiling eyes and I would caress her head and press her body close to mine.
Were all these new speculations of mine, which I was now experiencing, merely a product of my enforced idleness? In any case, they breathed a new kind of spirit into my life and my generous imagination provoked me into developing new and wonderful dreams after a long period of finding little or no joy in life or living; when it had seemed to me that without my father, I just couldn't, or didn't want to carry on living. My mother was concerned about my studies and said more than once that we must find a way to continue them. We had heard that because of the situation which had been created in Warsaw, teachers were tending to form small groups of students and continue teaching them at home. My uncle had promised to find such a teacher for me. My mother claimed that the study time that I was losing could never be regained but for some reason a teacher was never found and I never resumed studying. The only private lessons that I ever received were from my grandfather and were the lessons preparing me for my Bar-Mitzvah. Unlike my grandfather in Lodz, whom I loved, respected and was even a little afraid of, my grandfather in Warsaw was easy-going and relaxed and I could divert his attention to other things without fear of him becoming angry. Thus I felt I could start and stop the lessons as I wished and without feeling criticized and naughty. However, he was so forgiving that this, in itself, prevented me from taking too much advantage of his patience and good nature and for his sake, I would sit and learn. I was forever grateful to him for his mild and lenient, easy-going attitude towards me.
Another subject which occupied much of my thoughts at this time, was the general situation in which we found ourselves. I was obsessed with knowing what was going on; I searched for sources of information and tried to interpret all sorts of things as signs of the imminent downfall of the Germans. Through this approach, I came to realize that everyone was thirsting after knowledge, as I was, and that they would snap up any piece of gossip that came their way, even if the source was from a youngster like me. One day when, during prayers, I told of something I had heard, the whole congregation listened to me with such great attention and seriousness, that eventually I became embarrassed and blushed from the intensity of their concentration.
With surprising quickness, my day became planned and organized around a hunt for information. At ten in the morning I had to be in Muranowska Square, next to the loudspeakers that broadcast the official news. I was always early and listened first to the programme of German marching tunes. The German news broadcast also included news from the front - this always included an endless catalogue of German victories: the conquest of cities, regions, states, the sinking of shipping, the shooting down of aircraft, that demolished all hope of the early overthrow of the Germans. After the news, the radio broadcast announcements and orders and very often I was the first to bring this information home to the family and neighbourhood.
From the Square, I would often go to visit my aunt Sarah, who lived in Bonifraterska street. There, I would peruse thoroughly the Polish newspaper. The German newspaper which I found there was too difficult for me to read - the language I hardly new and the words so long they were like riddles to me. The desire to know what was going on was so strong in me, however, that it compelled me to make the effort and fairly soon I found myself in the position of being able to understand the gist of the main headlines and what was happening at the front and even to read short articles. I would burrow away at the pile of newspapers and find little or nothing to cheer me except the long lists of German war casualties which spread over columns of the pages. On these I would spend much time. I discovered that most of the announcements concerned officers and holders of the 'Iron Cross'.
From my aunt's house, I would continue to Nalewki street. I loved to wander this street because of its many various shops and the throngs of people who filled it. I would spend hours, sometimes, just wandering around there, with no real purpose in mind and afterwards make my way to my uncle's shop. There, I would listen in secret to the foreign radio stations, in particular the BBC, from London. I would also absorb all the rumours floating around, whose source nobody knew but which nevertheless sprouted like mushrooms after the rain and which thereafter spread like lightning. Some of them would raise false hopes - like the rumour which frequently renewed itself and promised that the Germans were already moving out and the Russians moving in to take their place.
Heavily loaded down with all this news, I would return home and start to recount it all. In the beginning, everyone would laugh at me and say.
Oh! Bereleh and his news!
With time, however, they began to listen very seriously to what I was saying. Eventually, I would return from the 'hunt' and find them waiting for me with:
Well, Bereleh!What news have you got for us today?
I enjoyed being the source of information for people.
Passover is the most beautiful of the Jewish festivals and the preparations for it, long and basic. Falling in the spring, it was the natural division between the hard, east European winter and the summer. Year after year, as the festival approached, the windows and doors to the balconies were opened, even if the weather was still quite cold and people were still shivering inside. The time had come, after months of winter, to air the house, to repair and renovate things that had been waiting for attention, to give a good fundamental cleaning to the whole house, to paint............
Entering the house during this period, I was always struck by the smell of fresh, invigorating air, diluted by the aromas of a mixture of paint and cleaning materials.
For a few weeks before the festival, the courtyard of Number One Pszebieg Street was in a turmoil. From morning until evening the echoing sound of sheets, blankets and carpets being thoroughly beaten was heard. Painters, armed with ladders and all their other paraphernalia came and went. In every apartment the general cleaning operation went on and the large rubbish container in the yard became too small to contain the extra quantities of rubbish that streamed into it from every quarter. Day after day, the container filled completely and next to it grew piles of additional rubbish. At night, the dustmen cleared everything away - only to see the process repeated the following day, right up to the day of the festival. In the end, the courtyard, to say nothing of the apartments, shone like a new pin.
Everyone in the family had new clothes for the festival and when we went to the synagogue in them I always had a tremendous feeling of pride. During the festival of Passover, we used a completely different set of tableware and cooking utensils. The tableware especially was noteworthy for its beauty and its colourfulness. The food, too, was different from what we usually had during the year. Passover was the most expensive of the festivals and the most impressive. One could see it, sense it, smell it - touch it, almost - on every side. It was also a 'family' festival; we received no guests nor did we visit others. The eight days of the festival were eight days of family happiness, overflowing with the pleasure drawn from a thousand different details etched into my memory, the memories of a child.
But not this time. This time; this time the festival turned into an unwanted, unwelcome burden, an event in no way in tune with our present situation and mood, which we accepted as if inevitably ordained from above. Every family prepared itself for the festival as best as it could, under the circumstances. Only the courtyard remained the same old courtyard and didn't change. The usual exciting feeling, that I knew so well, of Passover in the offing, was almost non-existent. Everything was on such a modest scale, quiet, in order not to create jealousy and ill feeling among the less fortunate, or because of our own fear of the unknown tomorrow.
In our flat, all had been prepared and ready for the special, evening meal - the Seder- but, somehow, inconspicuously. Everything seemed to move forward with a heavy atmosphere, almost as if we were trying to hide the festival. As evening fell a complete silence descended upon the courtyard. Not a soul was to be seen, man nor child. No one went to the synagogue to pray: prayers were held in private houses and in a shortened version. As soon as possible everyone returned to their respective homes. In all the apartments, candles were lit. Although in previous years, the courtyard seemed floodlit because of the light streaming out of all the windows, this year the courtyard stood in subdued light.
No one turned on all the lights in his apartment as was usual. Fear? A desire to remain inconspicuous? Everyone tried to maintain as modest a profile as was possible.
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