Life in the bunker became colourless and monotonous because we had nothing to do with our time. Only in the evenings could we go out to breathe a little fresh air but even so the cold would force us back inside quite quickly to the thick, muggy atmosphere.
Our salvation came in the shape of 'Samogonka' - a potent, home nade drink the farmers made from potatoes, or beets or, with luck, from wheat. The drink gave off a most dreadful stink but the alcohol made our heads spin until the bunker looked like a palace, everything looked rosy and all ones' problems faded. Our mood became quite gay after a swig or two, and after some time we would all fall into a deep sleep.
Jurziek and Mannik sometimes took Semen or Karichona with them, when they went to the villages to buy products, to help carry the sacks. I wanted to go as well because I was fed up with the interminable sitting around doing nothing. But when I told Jurziek that I wanted to go with, he said:
That's not for you. Its too difficult.
Semen, who wasn't all that keen on going, joined in and said to Jurziek: If Bereleh wants to go let him go with you!
Bereleh's still a child, said Jurziek, he won't have the strength to carry a sack of potatoes all the way from the village to here.
I joined in angrily, my pride hurt: I'm no longer a child, I'm sixteen. I learned to work in Sobibor and I can do anything that anyone else can do!
I, who already saw myself as very mature and an adult, was again considered a child and all because I was small and thin. Then Mannik intervened and said to his brother:
If Bereleh wants to come so much, then let him come with us.
I was happy. Jurziek led us through the forest with sure steps, as if walking through a well-known town and we quickly reached the edge of the forest. Jurziek stood still and listened carefully, turning his head this way and that, staring into the darkness for a long time. Afterwards, we continued walking in open country, stopping now and again to listen and to look around. I felt completely safe following Jurziek and enjoyed just walking through the night. As a child I had learned that the night was the ally of Satan, witches and all the other agencies of evil. Now the night was our ally, the persecuted and outlawed, and I felt as if I belonged to the world of darkness - the same darkness I once feared so much and ran away from. Now, while people sat securely in their homes, safe behind locked doors, without daring to go far from their homes, we left our hiding places and walked confidently under the cover of darkness....
We stopped some distance from a farmhouse whose silhouette could be seen in the dark ahead of us. Jurziek told us to sit down in the field and wait until he came for us, which he did in about a minute or so. He took us into a barn, where he again left us and went himself to the farmhouse, knocked on the door, and called his name a few times, until the door was opened and he disappeared inside. He returned to the barn with a young fellow, the son of the farmer, who already knew Mannik. The young man brought with him several sacks of produce, stretched out his hand to me warmly and we introduced ourselves. We left the food in the barn and parted from the young man in a friendly way, walked to another village where Mannik and myself waited in a field and Jurziek disappeared into the dark. I don't know how long we waited for Jurziek - a quarter of an hour? It seemed to me like hours. Occasionally, I thought fearfully that perhaps something had happened to him and I even sensed that Mannik was not entirely happy, because he sat the whole time without speaking, staring at the house. I breathed freely only when I heard the sibilant signal we had agreed upon - Tsssss. We both answered together - Tsssss. and Jurziek appeared in front of us, on his shoulders a large sack, from which came the delicious smell of fresh bread.
Jurziek sat next to us, reached into the sack and withdrew two bread-rolls filled with onions and grits - they were still hot - from his coat he drew a bottle of vodka and we each took a swig and ate our rolls, which were very tasty. The feeling of companionship with the two brothers on a night expedition was terrific. We made our way back in good spirits, entered the barn carefully, so that no one would notice us, and picked up the goods we had left there and distributed them among the three of us. The lightest of them Jurziek put on my shoulders.
In the beginning I had no difficulty carrying the load on my back, but as time went by, it seemed to get heavier and heavier until it seemed that I would soon have to give up, but when Jurziek asked me if everything was O.K., I replied that everything was fine. and it wasn't difficult, while in my heart I prayed for a short break. We sat for a breather only when we reached and entered the forest - and then only for a few minutes. Mannik was the one who asked for a few minutes rest, so I didn't have to ask - my pride was saved!
I returned to the bunker pleased with myself and from then on I went out with them from time to time, like all the others, bringing food. Only once did I have an unpleasant experience. When we returned to the forest, Jurziek and Mannik decided on that occasion to go and sleep in the other bunker. Jurziek asked me if I could find my way alone to our own bunker and I answered yes. I knew the way to our bunker because I had used the path several times and was sure of it. The two parted from me and I started on my way towards our home not far away - only a few minutes, in fact. But for some reason I made a mistake in the route and couldn't find the landmarks I knew along the paths. I went back and forth but to no avail. I had lost my way. The load on my shoulders got heavier. I was bathed in sweat. Occasionally I gave our special signal, but got no reply. I was beginning to get desperate and angry with myself. I had no idea where I was or where I had to go; whether I was close to my destination or whether I had managed to get so far off track, that I'd never get back. At last, tired to the point of exhaustion, I sat down under a tree and fell asleep.
When I woke up it was already daylight and to my surprise, found myself, literally, a few steps from the bunker. For days afterwards I was the butt of jokes and laughter from my friends.
Jurziek brought a new 'tenant' to the bunker, a man about sixty-years-old, for whom we found a place only with difficulty. We had already heard about this man - a professor, well-dressed in clean clothes, his face reflecting dignity. He was a well-known Czech architect who had designed famous buildings in his own country. The Germans had employed him in Poland until recently. He found it very hard to get used to life in the bunker, especially the difficulties we encountered with lice and other pests. He was unable to under-stand how it was possible not to wash every day. On his very first day he began his war on the lice - at the first tickle he stripped off and started searching in the folds and seams.
I've found four lice!He screamed.
The man was surprised and satisfied that he had managed to kill the four. After about an hour he was again at it, while we all sat and watched him in his losing fight. When he had finished the 'second round' of the war, he declared that he had killed a further twelve and we all nearly burst out laughing.
After a few hours the old professor said to us in a tearful voice that he was fighting a losing battle; he was already unable to count the number of lice he was finding......
The only medicine we had to help us in our fight against all pestilence, be it lice, body-smell, sleep-walking and whatever, was the stinky, strong 'Samogonka', which was effective against the lice as well, and Jurziek made sure we had a supply. Every evening we started swigging the drink and the bunker lit up. He who was quiet all day long suddenly became talkative, told jokes, sang songs. Mannik liked to quote and recite poetry from well-known Polish and Jewish sources and sometimes material that he had written himself. Those I loved above all because they expressed what was happening to us in the present. When he was reciting something he was as tense as a fiddle-string, the veins of his forehead and neck standing out, his eyes protruding and the words leaving his mouth as if each one were a treasure not to be relinquished. When he had finished he would come to me and ask:
Well, Bereleh , what do you think? Was it good?
He knew that I liked his poems but again and again he wanted to hear me say so. He used to say that the others didn't understand a thing and sometimes it seemed to me that he wrote his poems and other works just for me.
One day, towards evening we heard a rustling overhead, on top of the bunker. In the entrance we saw a pair of bare legs. Then Szaje, the Gardener, from the other bunker, squeezed his way in, as naked as the day he was born. He was as white as chalk, his whole body shaking, his eyes the eyes of a madman. His face told us that some terrible tragedy had occurred.
He tried to say something but couldn't get a word out of his mouth. Instead, he broke out sobbing so heart-breakingly that it was hard to stop him. When he had calmed down a little he told us that in the early hours of the morning a gang of Polish robbers had appeared at the opening of the bunker, shot into it, and ordered everyone out one, by one, making them all strip naked - and then killed them.
Szaje told them that he had hidden gold under one of the trees. The gang ordered him to strip off and he led them as if towards the hiding-place until he sensed an opportunity to run. The Poles fired after him but by a miracle he wasn't hit. All day long he had wandered about naked and freezing, until he had stumbled back to our bunker.
For a few minutes we were struck dumb with shock. Until now we had lived with the illusion that here, in the forest, no one would do us any harm! From the moment I had come to this forest, I had never seen anyone except our own people. Although Jurziek had said more than once that he was afraid of Polish murderers, no one took him all that seriously and I had even dared to dream of the day when we would walk out of here free and be able to watch the final down-fall of the Germans. Now, it seems, there were some Polish killers who were finishing off the few remaining Jews who had survived in Poland after it had been made Judenrein. No! There was no chance that any of us would survive. Our fate was sealed. Our status as free souls in the forest was the same as it had been in Sobibor as German prisoners - we were destined to die; only we didn't know when we would be killed.
Semen recovered first and said:
We have to go over there and see - perhaps someone's alive and only injured?But Szaje the gardener only wailed:
They're all dead...they're all dead.
Jurziek seemed preoccupied. There was no doubt that the killers were looking for us, now - only by chance had they discovered the other bunker first and not only that - it had paid off for them, Haim the jeweller had had a lot of gold.
First of all we had to get as many clothes on Szaje as possible, until Jurziek managed to get him some more. It was also clear that we had to abandon our bunker, which, in one stroke had become a veritable death-trap.
We found some clothes for Szaje, all that was missing for the time being were shoes. He wrapped his feet in some sacking and we all left the bunker. Day became evening. It was difficult to see far. When I looked around me it was as if behind every tree a murderous thief hid in ambush. But it was deathly silent and not a soul was to be seen.
We sat down somewhere to discuss what we should do, but the truth of the matter was we were waiting for Jurziek to take the lead. None of us had a solution to the terrible problem that had suddenly come to confront us. We were at the beginning of winter. We had left our warm bunker and were already shivering with cold. Every day now could bring with it snow and it was clear that in out the snow, we wouldn't survive five minutes.
Jurziek was silent. He could think of nothing. The expression on his face was painful. In the end he said:
We have to go and bury our dead. At least they must be buried like Jews. But we'll do it late at night. It's impossible to know if the murderers are waiting there for us or Szaje, who they know is naked. For ourselves at the moment, I haven't got a solution. There's no farmer in the world who would agree to hide such a large group of people - not for all the money in the world. Mannik and I have places among the farmers where we could hide, but I can't abandon all of you. We'll all stay together. But we have to find a way to avoid the killers. So far, they haven't managed to catch us but they'll keep on looking.....
Then Semen said:
If they'd had just one gun in the bunker, this wouldn't have happened. We've got to get hold of some guns, at any cost. Then let these 'heroes' come after us.
Jurziek said that he would make every effort to get hold of a rifle, but that in the meantime we had no alternative but to return to the bunker. Unlike previously, though, we would place a guard outside. The guard would look and listen carefully and try to identify whoever approached the bunker, from a distance, while, if necessary, we would all have time to get away. Soon, the snows would come and cover the entire forest, weighing down the branches until it would be almost impossible for anyone to enter the forest. Although that same snow was likely to give us away from our footprints. For that he had an idea - that we should all learn to use stilts, like circus clowns. The tracks would look not much different to the tracks of animals. Those who didn't learn to use them, wouldn't be able to leave the bunker..
The place which only recently we had thought to be a death-trap, and from which we had escaped, was again the place in which we were force to live for want of an alternative, in spite of the inherent danger. The freezing cold outside convinced us to return.
That night, Jurziek, Mannik and all the survivors from Sobibor, apart from Szaje, who had not yet recovered from the shock of the butchery, went to the other bunker to bury our comrades. The feeling was frightful. The closer we got, the more we stopped to listen and look around us in the dark. Were the murderers waiting for us? I had the feeling the whole time that I could hear voices, groans and crying and other sorts of rustlings. I was shaking with fear. Angry with myself, I tried to hide it and conquer the fear: what's happening to me? Every whisper of sound, every bird leaving its nest, scares me as if it were my first day in the forest! We arrived at our destination. We held our breath. white bodies were strewn around near the bunker. Part of the roofing was missing and inside the bunker there were other bodies, with clothes on.
It was difficult at night to identify the dead. Silent, without saying a word, we laid the corpses - we found five - inside the bunker, next to each other. Semen told me to take the shoes off one of them for Szaje, which I did. Jurziek began to say Kaddish and we all joined in. Afterwards we spent an hour covering the bodies where they lay - the bunker changed from being a hide-away to a common grave - and left the place.
After the tragedy of the bunker, we lived in the shadow of the danger that threatened us, and looked for ways to protect ourselves from its threat. Even though we had stationed a guard, we felt as if we were in a trap and tried to spend as much time as possible outside, but time and time again we had to seek refuge from the cold and the rain.
If they jump us inside the bunker, said Karichona, it won't be easy for them; we'll fight them tooth and nail. But when are we going to get some guns?
Jurziek informed us that we'd soon be receiving a rifle. He had already paid part of the price to the son of one of the farmers he knew, and he had promised to bring the weapon soon; let the murderers dare to get close to us then!
Isn't it possible to do anything with my ammunition, I asked Semen. All the others laughed at my question and Semen, not knowing whether to laugh or be serious, replied:
You can hit the detonator at the base, or heat the shell in the fire - that will fire the explosive in the cartridge and the bullet will fly off somewhere.
The rain continued to pour down. Sometimes there was sleet or just wet snow, which melted as soon as it touched the ground. Because of the stormy weather we hadn't done a thing about the stilts and with time the tension lessened and our watchfulness became somewhat relaxed. Again laughter could be heard within the bunker and the dreadful pictures of the murder in the other bunker joined the many other earlier, awful pictures which I carried deep within my memory.
One morning, when I went out of the bunker, I was surprised by the way in which the appearance of the forest had changed - large flakes of snow had fallen slowly, covering the forest floor with white. Even the branches were now white.
A strange feeling enfolded me. The scene was both beautiful and threatening. It continued snowing all day and the forest became whiter and whiter; the branches began to droop towards the ground with the weight of the snow. I willingly went up from the bunker for my spell of guard duty. I looked into the falling snow covering everything in white and memories of my childhood welled up and flooded me. How I loved the first snowy day of winter - to get up in the morning, look out of the window and see the falling snow - the whole world white! How I loved to wander round the snowy streets instead of returning straight home after school! Even now I was enchanted by the forest, which, within a few hours, had completely changed its colour to white. But the beauty was accompanied with anxiety for what may be coming - the forest had given us, so far, freedom, the possibilty of movement, manuverability - while the snow removed the freedom and restricted us to the bunker as though it were a prison.
One morning, Semen came into the bunker, while he was on guard duty and told us that as he had turned his head he had caught a glimpse of what seemed a human shape and for a moment, their gazes met. The man disappeared in a flash and Semen had seen no more of him, although he had scanned the area ceaselessly for an hour afterwards. Semen was not entirely sure that the shape he had seen was that of a man; it may have been the head of an animal - or perhaps just an illusion. But Jurziek said determinedly:
They've found us! That man's following us. We have to leave the bunker. We had no desire to leave the warm bunker; we also knew that we had nowhere to go, but we did as commanded by Jurziek. All day long we lay out I the snow and the cold and only when it began to get dark did we begin walking. Jurziek led us to a farmer's barn which we used as a meeting point and hid us under a great heap of straw, while he and Mannik went to the farmer's house. He hoped to meet the son who was supposed to be bringing us the rifle for which we had now paid; if we get the rifle, Jurziek promised us, we would return to the bunker unafraid of the gang of murderers, and if we don't get it, then perhaps the farmer's son, who was a friend, would find somewhere to hide us. But the son was not at home. Maybe he was even hiding from Jurziek.
With no alternative, and in the hope that he would meet the son later on, Jurziek decided that we should spend the day in the barn. He bought some food at a good price from the farmer and afterwards told the farmer that he and his brother would like to remain in the barn until the following evening. The farmer found it difficult to refuse at first and Jurziek thought that we'd all be able to stay there but after an hour or so, the farmer came into the barn and told Jurziek that his wife was terrified and that we had to leave. We got out of there in a few minutes and found ourselves again standing in a snowy field, with the snow still coming down and us with nowhere to go. The cold, which penetrated our bones, very quickly forced us to decide to return to the bunker.
Once inside the forest, we hid our tracks by trailing branches after us and were happy that the snow was falling and helping us. It was good to be back in our bunker - everyone grabbed his old spot, we all drank a little vodka, and within a short space of time it was nice and warm inside. We felt as if we had returned home.
A few days passed normally, without anything unusual happening. Everyone assumed that the killers knew nothing about us, or our whereabouts, and that the figure that Semen had seen, had been no more than an illusion.
Towards evening, when all of us were in the bunker, waiting for it to get dark and for Jurziek and Mannik to return from the village, a kind of tension settled upon us. With the two brothers missing, we never felt completely safe and always awaited their return impatiently, like children waiting for their parents. Maybe this time they'll bring the long-expected and hoped-for rifle with them, or perhaps some good news? Whatever - another day of tension was drawing to a close - night - that which we had come to love more and more - fell quickly....
Suddenly a shout was heard from above! Solomon, who was on guard, was shouting:
Karichona jumped from his place, stuck his head outside the bunker, and then withdrew it rapidly, shouting: They're coming!
He grabbed hold of an axe standing in the corner and with a quick movement was outside.
At the same moment a shot was heard, and then another one.
This is the end, said Szaje.
Along one side of the bunker lay Semen, close to the entrance, then after him, myself, after me Avraham and last of all, in the corner, Szaje. On the other side, facing us, remained only the aged professor, who was in the corner, and Schnabel, who was lying in the centre, between the two rows, opposite the opening. Suddenly, an object of sorts rolled into the bunker through the opening and exploded with a deafening roar. The bunker filled immediately with a dense, acrid smoke. I felt as if I were choking. The acrid smoke entered the eyes and throat. It was impossible to breathe. I couldn't see a thing. I thought it was an early stage of death and that at any moment the soul would leave the body.
The silence that settled upon the bunker made me think that everyone was dead, but after a minute groans could be heard. Szaje was shouting that he was injured, Schnabel was moaning and groaning: My legs, my legs.... and the professor was also wounded. As the smoke began to clear a little I could see that Schnabel's legs were indeed covered in blood, which was continuing to flow and form a pool on the floor of the bunker. Again Schnabel groaned, Oi!, oi! I flattened myself against the wall as much as I could but apart from that I was completely helpless. There was nothing to do - just wait for the moment of death which must come at any instant. I was surprised that I was still alive. Only a few moments ago I thought we were all already dead.
Again and again shots were fired into the bunker. Between shots - silence. Apparently they were listening to what was going on inside. Schnabel was the most frequently hit because he was right opposite the entrance. With great difficulty we managed to move him a little, out of the line of fire, into a corner but his body was covered in wounds and his blood was all over the bunker.
Szaje was praying. Avraham was crying and suddenly drew some money from his pocket and started tearing the bills to shreds and then took his wrist-watch from his hand and started smashing it on the wall.
At least, I can make sure that the murderers don't get it, he moaned to himself.
We parted from each other with hand shakes and kisses and waited for death.
Suddenly a voice called from outside: Everyone out! Everyone out! We looked at each other. No one stirred. Again shots and again the shout: Everyone out! Everyone out!
No, we won't go outside! It is better to die here, inside. Let them come in and try and take us! In the meantime we had recovered from the initial shock. Semen, who was lying in the corner near the entrance, was gripping a shovel in his hand ready to hit the first one to put his nose inside, and it was quite clear from his attitude that the owner of that nose wouldn't be taking it out again with him. I found a big knife and stood ready with it in my hand. Again silence. Probably the most difficult moments were the moments of silence and expectation.
Suddenly Avraham started shouting wildly and we all joined in without knowing what for, after all, who was going to hear us here, in the forest? And who were we expecting to come and help - the Germans?
Minutes passed - perhaps hours. We lost all sense of time. When we suddenly stopped shouting and silence reigned outside we heard from above, over our heads, the sound of digging. They were afraid to come in; the firing had been in vain - nobody had gone out - and so the only way they had of getting at us was to dismantle the roof!
We had come to terms with the fact that we were going to die, here, in the bunker - nobody wanted to be taken alive by the killers. Then I remembered that I had a pocket full of bullets and that it was possible to fire them by striking the detonator. I grabbed at the idea like a drowning man clutches a straw and turning to Semen said:
Come on, let's try and fire a bullet outside!
I got the bullets - but how to hold them? I improvised a sort of pliers with two forks and gave the 'pliers' to Semen, who was near the opening, together with a bullet, and lit a candle. Semen held the bullet aimed towards the 'door', and still listening to the sounds of digging above our heads we heated the base of the cartridge. We hoped for a 'miracle' with twanging nerves. After a few seconds - or maybe it was many minutes - a mighty roar filled the bunker. Shaken by the success, I began to shout in Russian: Semen, fire! Come here! Bring the rifles. Give me the pistol! Fire! fire!
I continued shouting for as long I as I could only to make our attackers think that here in the bunker were heavily-armed partisans and meanwhile Semen continued to heat another bullet and discharge it. This time I thought I had been hit and shouted I'm hit!, because I felt a sudden burning on my hand, but I soon saw that it was just that the detonator powder had flashed onto my hand and scorched the skin slightly. Semen continued 'shooting' - every round took quite a long time - and we both continued shouting commands in Russian. Suddenly we noticed that the sounds of digging had stopped. We listened tensely to what was going on above. Complete silence! We waited an hour with bated breath but not a sound was heard.
Fire another round, I said to Semen, and the silence was broken by the sound of the explosion, then again total silence - like the quiet after the storm
How long had passed since the moment that Solomon had reported to us:
They're coming!? From the opening no light penetrated. Was it really night? Were the killers up there? Perhaps they'd gone? How can we take such a chance! Perhaps they're waiting for us there, quietly, outside? Maybe they went to bring reinforcements and ammunition? If so, then we had to get out and escape from the area as quickly as possible.
Semen tried sticking his head out as slowly as possible, but something in the way stopped him. They've blocked the entrance, he said, and when he moved closer with a candle, added: They've blocked the entrance with Karichona's body!
Semen tried to move the corpse to one side, but couldn't manage it. I, as if not believing him, also tried to move the body, with my head and hands, but also unsuccessfully. The desire to get out of the bunker started to make us mad. Everyone tried to get the body out of the way but it just didn't move. There remained only one way to break through the barrier and that was to cut the body up, but no one dared to do it. Avraham began dismantling the roof from within. He tried to free one of the beams supporting the roof by digging round it. It began to sag a little. From the roof fell a little earth and we immediately became aware of our danger - the whole roof could collapse and bury us all alive. We shouted as one:
Avraham! Stop it! You'll bury all of us alive!
After superhuman efforts we at last managed to move the body a little and drag one of the legs inside and with a little more effort we at last freed the entrance. Soaking wet with sweat, blood-stained, we went outside into the freezing cold. Outside everything was silent and white. There were no indications of what had been happening here, in this place, such a short while before. It was difficult to believe that we were alive.
We examined our situation. The old professor was lightly injured in the head and hand, apparently by shrapnel from the grenade which the attackers had thrown inside. His face and clothes were blood-stained. Szaje's injuries were even lighter - he had a few scratches which had bled, but in the meantime dried. Only Schnabel was seriously injured. His whole body was punctured with bullets and his legs shattered. He was fully conscious and begged us to kill him, so that he wouldn't have to suffer any more. We didn't know what we could do for him. We were afraid that the murderers would return and we wanted to get away as quickly as possible. We told Schnabel that we would come back later and take care of him. Karichona's body, we left where it was, fully determined to return and bury it.
We stood there, on top of the bunker, looking at one another, not believing we were still alive. Avraham burst out crying. Suddenly we heard a rustling sound and Solomon appeared as if from out of the ground, shaking and deeply moved.
He told us that the attackers apparently knew that we had a guard outside. They crept towards us very carefully so as not to be detected, and when he discovered them they were already far too close for him to do anything. He discovered them purely by chance, when one of them stepped on a branch. There were three of them, armed with rifles. They didn't bother to take cover even when they knew they had been discovered - they apparently knew that we were unarmed. In any case they continued to advance and it was then that Solomon had called out to us in warning, he, himself, having no alternative, taking to his heels, and hearing from a distance the shooting and the explosion. He was utterly convinced that we were all dead. Later, when complete silence returned, he began to wander round the forest, not knowing what to do for the best. He thought of going to a farmer where he had hidden before joining us, but something drew him back to the bunker to see what had happened. He scanned the area for quite a while, before actually daring to approach the bunker - then suddenly he had heard our voices.
Something was telling us to get away from there quickly but progress was slow. We had to support the professor and Szaje, because it was difficult for them to walk. Time and time again we had to stop to let them rest. Not far from the farmhouse which waa our deestination, we stopped next to a big tree at the edge of the path. We had to decide what to do - to go and hide in the barn? To approach the farmer and ask about Jurziek? To ask him to let us stay in his yard until Jurziek turned up? There was no chance that he would agree to that.
Suddenly we heard footsteps. Two figures came towards us through the snow. We were frozen to the spot. I gave our special signal Tssss and immediately got a reply like an echo: Tssss. It was Jurziek and Mannik. We told them what had happened. From the moment we had left the bunker we hadn't talked about the event. Now, everyone had to tell Jurziek every detail. Everyone spoke together until the complete babble of sound forced everyone to stop and silence came down. Then Jurziek said:
I knew something terrible would happen today. I had a bad dream last night and all day long something in my heart told me that a tragedy was taking place in the forest. It's a miracle, a miracle that you came out of it alive.
On the question of what we should do now, he had no ready answer; he decided to hide us in the farmer's barn for the time being, without the farmer knowing, and in the meantime he and Mannik would return to the bunker in order to see if it was possible to save Schnabel. We wanted to go with them, but Jurziek refused to take us with him, saying:
You've suffered enough today. And I don't need your help
We stole into the barn and lay down, hiding ourselves in a pile of straw. In the meantime, Jurziek was saying to us:
Think of what you can all do to save yourselves; I've got no solution for you at the moment.
He went to the farmer's house but without telling the farmer that we were hiding in his barn. He only told the farmer's son, though, asking him to bring us something hot to drink and some disinfectant and dressings for our wounds. Later, he and Mannik went to the forest. Outside, we had frozen in the cold, here, in the straw, we began to warm up a bit. A great tiredness came upon me, but as I was just falling asleep, the farmer and his wife suddenly appeared in the barn, pitch-forks in their hands, shouting, Out, Jews! Quick! Out! They jabbed their pitch-forks blindly into the pile of straw, continuing to shout: Out! We know you're there!
We stuck our heads out of the straw saying that we were leaving, but the woman continued to shout, curse us and threaten to kill us if we didn't clear off immediately. We left the warm barn and returned to the tree at the edge of the forest, shaking with cold and waiting for the return of Jurziek and Mannik from the bunker - and a miracle.
Jurziek and Mannik returned and on seeing us guessed immediately what had happened at the barn. Jurziek told us that when they entered the bunker, they found Schnabel lying there, dead and completely naked, his clothes strewn close-by. Apparently, the robbers had indeed returned, stripped him of his clothes and searched through them. We continued to stand together, shivering in the cold in the winter's night, silent and desperate. We felt that we were at a fateful moment - in vain we had shared so many dangers together; in vain we had bled, so that we can survive. For now we were facing the end - the moment had arrived for us to go our separate ways.
It was Szaje who broke the silence, saying that he and Avraham had decided to make their way to the villages around Chelm, where he knew many farmers and he could find a place to hide. Solomon said that he and the professor could return to the farmer where they stayed before joining us in the forest, but that he hasn't any money to pay his host. Jurziek asked if anyone could give them something. From all the money that I originally had, only a little remained. I gave two gold coins to Solomon and he kissed me.
I looked at Semen and Semen looked at me - to where could we go? Not to Winnica, his home-town, and not to Warsaw - mine. Then Semen said:
Bereleh, we'll return to the bunker. Whatever will be - will be!
You're not going back to the bunker, interposed Jurziek, You'll come with us. Whatever happens to us, will happen to you.
We parted from Szaje and Avraham, from Solomon and the professor. We felt that we would never meet each other again.
We stood and watched as the two pairs of dark figures gradually receded into the distance on the white expanse, until they disappeared from sight. I felt as if my heart was bursting inside me. What did it all mean?
It was after midnight. We had to find somewhere - anywhere - before the farmers got up to start milking their cows. Jurziek led us with rapid steps along snow-covered paths. The frost was bitter, nipping at our ears, noses and cheeks but the rapid walk warmed the body. We walked in silence. The pictures of the day's events didn't leave me. The explosions, the shooting, the shouts, the crying. The resignation with death and dying. The parting with each other in the bunker when we thought it was all over. The dead Karichona, Schnabel's shattered body, himself asking for death from our hands. Avraham, Szaje, Solomon and the professor, from whom we had parted at the tree - people that I loved and who loved me. I'd never see them again.
I couldn't understand how it was that I had survived until now. Was it not a sign that I was being protected from above? Again and again the same thought ran through me, this time accomanied by the question - why me, and not Karichona or Schnabel - was I better than they?
I suddenly began laughing to myself - the bullets that I had put in my pocket in Sobibor had saved us! Those cowardly murderers heard the reverberating explosions from inside the bunker and cleared off out of fear!
I had the feeling that Jurziek, who was leading us, didn't know quite where to go. From time to time, he stopped, stood still and considered his next move, sometimes changing direction, beginning to quicken his steps so much that we were almost running in order to keep up, with him. He finally stopped not far from a large isolated farm, at a slight distance from a village. He said:
I know this farmer well, from before the war. He's a good man. His name's Karpyuck. You wait here, I'll go and have a look round and keep the dog quiet. I'll hide you in the barn and in the morning I'll talk to the farmer - perhaps we'll find ourselves a hiding place here.
We crept carefully into the barn. It was half full of baled straw, half of it remained empty. Semen and I built a hiding place inside the bales leaving a communication hole with the outside so Jurziek and Mannik could talk to us or pass us food, and so on, but the moment I lay down I fell instantly asleep. In the middle of the night I woke up covered in sweat, my heart beating like mad - I dreamt I was in Sobibor and I can't understand it, because I've already escaped from there once. In my dream, I decide to escape from the camp that same night. Together with some friends, I'm in a bunker underneath the room of Kapo Moisheh, in our hut. Everyone is there - Avraham, Szaje, Karichona, Schnabel and others. We creep quietly out of the hut and start making for the gate. The whole camp is illuminated with bright lights and the whole area can be seen in all its detail I say to myself: That's funny! everything's supposed to be blacked out - why is everything lit up like this? Suddenly I see Germans running towards the gate - Frenschel, Stoibel, Gomerski, Grieschutz - all of them with automatic weapons in their hands. It's clear that they are waiting for us. Someone informed on us! We change direction and start running along the fence, towards Compound Three. On the way we find a big hole in the fence and Avraham, Szaje, Schnabel and Karichona all escape through it. I am waiting for another group which is supposed to arrive and in the meantime I hear the sound of singing, getting louder and louder - a group of girls, Dutch Jewesses, is coming closer. They are singing a Dutch song and I am surprised: where are they going in the midle of the night? Suddenly I see Wagner is leading them. Our eyes meet and I can tell from Wagner's face that he knows I'm trying to escape. I get up and begin to run towards the gap, but Wagner draws his pistol and shoots me......
At that moment I woke up with a start and I needed a few minutes to convince myself that I was still alive, lying together with Semen, in a pile of straw. When I told Jurziek my dream, later on, he said authoritatively:
Avraham and Szaje are already dead! and burst out crying.
A few days later Jurziek was told that the same night we parted from Szaje and Avraham, a German patrol reporting shooting and killing two Jews.
When I woke up in the morning, I opened a small gap in the straw, in order to see what was happening in the barn. My dream still troubled me and it was difficult to know if what I remembered from the dream was true or if the reality to which I had woken was a dream. Through the little tunnel I had made in the straw, I could see Jurziek and Mannik striding about the barn near the door, rubbing their hands together to get them warm. Jurziek told us to keep quiet and not move - soon the farmer would come to take food for his animals. Sure enough, within a minute or two, the farmer came in. He was surprised to see Jurziek and his brother, but immediately hugged and kissed them in greeting and talked with them warmly. Then he loaded a wheel-barrow with fodder and went out.
A little later, a young girl ran into the barn. Jurziek kissed her, letting his hands fall to her backside and hugging her to him. The girl slapped him lightly, in fun, saying: Czwinia!- (pig) - and I thought that Jurziek had done something terrible, that the girl would never forgive him. I was unable to understand why Jurziek had behaved in such a vulgar fashion, but I could see, to my surprise that the girl wasn't at all angry with him. On the contrary - she fussed over him, patting and stroking him and finally kissing him before going out, returning later to invite Jurziek and Mannik to breakfast. Semen and I remained in our hide-out. Hungry, we chewed some grains of wheat which we found still attached to the chaff.
In the meantime Jurziek sought ways and means to feed us. He told the farmer that he didn't want to disturb the family in the house and he would feel better if he could take the food and eat it in the barn. Thus he thought he could sneak enough food for all of us to share, but the farmer would hear none of it and insisted that his guests would eat like guest - at the table! Jurziek was left with no alternative other than to hide a few morsels from the table in his knapsack, while no one was watching. When he and Mannik had managed to take as much as they could, they left the house under some pretext or other and brought us the plunder.
The straw was teeming with small, grey field mice, running about all over the place. I got used to them and they didn't trouble me too much until one of them suddenly ran up my trouser leg...I caught hold of it through the material and held on to it, feeling all the time its trembling attempts to free itself and escape. I didn't know what to do - if I relaxed my grip and let it go it would continue on its way up.....and to squeeze it to death where it was, I couldn't. In the end, I closed my other hand round the upper part of the leg so he couldn't proceed upwards and let go. As a precaution, I then tied the bottoms of my trousers so it wouldn't happen again. The mice were undeterred and continued to seek all sorts of entrances in order to make excursions on my body - under my shirt, up my sleeves, under my jacket - until I just gave up the struggle and gave them free passage all over me.
On the second day of our stay in Karpyuck's barn, in the late afternoon, Jurziek came and told us to keep quiet, because the farmer would be coming soon to take fodder for the animals. After a few minutes, the farmer's daughter came in, put a ladder in place and climbed up to the top of the hay-loft and began to throw some bales down. We felt her working quite close to us and held our breath..... suddenly, she fell in, with all her weight, on top of us. For a moment we looked at each other, all of us struck dumb in surprise, each for his own reason. I felt the whole weight of her body on top of me and her heavy breathing, and was scared to move a muscle. Then, she let out explosively: Oh! Jesus!
Semen said in Russian:
Have you got a guy staying here by the name of Jurziek?
Yes, yes,she replied climbing off me.
Then tell him that we've come to visit him and would like to see him.
The girl jumped down and ran as quickly as she could into the house. After a minute or two, Jurziek and Mannik came into the barn and told us to come out - our secret had been discovered. The farmer came into the barn, as well, and Jurziek introduced us - he told the farmer that Semen was a Russian pilot whose plane had been brought down by the Germans; Semen and I were members of a partisan group, that we had both come to meet him and in honour of the occasion, would it be possible to invite us for a good meal at his - Jurziek's expense. He asked the farmer to slaughter a good goose and supply a couple bottles of vodka and he would pay for everything.
The farmer liked the idea of a special meal on a normal weekday. Late in the evening, when the whole village was quiet, Semen and I went into the warm, homely farmhouse and sat at the table to a splendid meal. Vodka was served from the very beginning of the meal and I quickly became tipsy after the first sips. The food was good and served in quantity. The mood was happy and elated. The farmer told that he didn't understand what had happened to Jurziek:
I know Jurziek so many years as an honest, good guy. I knew all his family, all of them are honest. I received Jurziek and his brother into my home as if they were my own children and gave them as much food as they wanted - and what do I see? They steal food from my table! As soon as my back is turned, things disappear from the table....I asked myself, why are they stealing from me? They're not short of food, I'm giving them everything that they can eat! I got so angry I even thought of chucking them out - let them go to hell! But I love Jurziek more than my own son and I just couldn't do it. Now I understand why they did it - these two were in the barn the whole time - and you, Jurziek and Mannik, stole food for them. And don't come with your fairy stories that they've only just arrived here this evening for a meeting....!
It was clear from the way he was talking, thast he wasn't particularly upset or put out by the fact that we had surreptitiously stolen into, and stayed in his barn. The way in which we had solved the problem was more important to him by far. Jurziek burst out laughing and went up to Karpyuck and shook his hand.
You're a clever man, Mr. Karpyuck! Jurziek said and the farner started laughing and we all joined in. Jurziek refilled the glasses and the atmosphere warmed up even more.
Jurziek didn't forget for one moment our situation. He told the farmer 'all about' Semen - that he was an excellent pilot who had bombed Berlin a few times already, had taken on six German fighter-planes and managed to down three of them before he himself was brought down. The farmer, already steeped in vodka, asked Semen if it was all true and Semen answered all the time: Da! Da! Semen was embarrassed to listen to the stories that Jurziek was inventing, but Jurziek said to him:
Don't be so modest! and continued with his fictions, Soon the war will end, and Pan Karpyuck will be invited to Moscow, where he will have a medal pinned to his chest by none other than Stalin himself and all because he helped Semen the pilot!
Then it was my turn.....
You see that youngster there? He is the son of the biggest factory owner in Lodz. Whole streets of houses they own, and when the war is over there's no doubt that you'll get a present of one or two of them.......
I just sat there feeling myself going red and white in turns. I thought how lucky I was that there wasn't much light in the room and that my intense embarrassment at having to listen to Jurziek's exaggerations wasn't all that obvious.
Tell me, the farmer asked Jurziek, What would I do with a house in Lodz?
You can always sell it and buy what you need, said Jurziek, with commendable aplomb.
Thus we sat in the farmer's house until a late hour with no one raising the point of our pressing problem, until evetually, we just stood up and went to sleep out in the barn. As I woke up in the morning, I immediately sensed that I couldn't feel the lower part of my right leg. At first, I thought that it had just 'gone to sleep' so I started to shake it and move it around to 'wake' it up, but it didn't help. Apparently, during the night, while I was asleep, I had stretched it outside the protection of the straw and it had become frost-bitten.
Jurziek and Semen massaged my leg with snow, for over an hour until it began to get some feeling back into it, and the blood to flow as normal. Now it began to hurt and I wasn't sure if it was because of the frost-bite or the massage. I had heard more than once, stories of people with frost-bite who had had to have their limbs amputated because of gangrene and I was terrified that would happen to me, but Jurziek, Mannik and Semen put my mind at rest and said that everything would be alright.
In the meantime, Jurziek began to have a heart-to-heart talk with the farmer, asking him to allow us to stay in the protection of the house for the winter. He suggested that we stay in the cellar of the house, but the farmer wouldn't agree to it. He wouldn't agree, either, that we build a bunker in the barn itself - his suggestion was that we build a bunker for ourselves outside the limits of his property. In the end it was decided that we build a bunker in the corner of his yard, next to the pigsty.
Thus a few days passed at the farmer's house. We ate satisfactorily, and we were protected from the frost. But my leg was hurting me. I felt pain in the toes and the ends were turning grey and the little toe even went black. I was very worried but said nothing to anyone.
We had problems with the bunker right from the beginning. It was hard digging into the frozen ground and when we'd managed to overcome that problem and progressed about half-a-metre, we came upon a layer of underground water that put paid to all ideas of a bunker at that location. At that point, the farmer had a meeting with all of us and explained that he was truly ready to help us in every way he could, but he couldn't let us stay on his property because he was endangering his whole family. He suggested that, for all that, we look for a place to hide - away from his property - and from time to time, we could come to him and he would supply us with whatever we needed.
There was no point in further pressuring the good man to allow us to stay at his farm: the halcyon days were over. Again we were forced to go out looking for a place to hide.
Karpyuck brought us some supplies to get started with. We parted from him and his family on good terms and went out into the darkness. Small pellets of snow whipped our faces.It was impossible to see more than two steps ahead so we stayed very close together. It was completely silent. Only the whistling of the wind. I felt as if we were walking on the edge of a precipice - as if any moment we would fall over the edge.
Jurziek, as if he could read my thoughts, stopped, and said:
Don't worry. I've got a plan. Not far from here, about five kilometres, is a lonely house, well away from the local villages. It used to belong to my uncle Solomon. When I passed by a few months ago, I found it deserted. The chances are that it still is. That's where we're going now. We'll build ourselves a hiding place there, and in the evenings we'll go to Karpyuck and get supplies.
Even though we trusted Jurziek completely and felt sure that he would find us shelter, it was hard to walk without knowing where we were going.
Now that we had a definite target before us, our mood changed and walking became easier. Because of the awful weather and the snow which covered the paths, it was difficult for Jurziek to find the house, so we wandered about a bit, to and fro, until I began to think that we'd never find our destination. The house has disappeared! said Jurziek angrily at one point, It should be here! He lay in the snow looking in all directions and suddenly cried out: It's there. I can see it!
We continued forward and soon we saw a small house in front of us. Because of all the snow that had built up around it, it seemed very low in the ground. In front of it was a half-destroyed low awning, without doors, and half its roofing missing.
There was no sign of life but Jurziek said: There are people living there. How do you know that? we all asked as one.
Can't you see, he asked, that the house has been surrounded with fresh straw so that they would be a little warmer during the winter. He thought for a moment or two and then added:
If we've already got here, I'm going in to see what's what, even if the devil himself is there. You all stay under the awning for the moment so that they don't see you.
He approached the door and knocked. At first there was no reply, but he was insistent and asked the occupants to open the door. Eventually a woman's voice answered:
It's me, Jurziek. A friend. Let me in.
We're two women here on our own - we're not opening the door to anyone at night, said the woman, but Jurziek continued to plead with her and in the end persuaded her that there was nothing to fear, telling her that he had lost his way in the appalling weather and he wanted to rest and get warm.
The door opened and Jurziek was swallowed up inside. He sat there for ages, it seemed. At last, when our patience was exhausted, he reappeared with a broad smile on his face.
I've found us an excellent hiding place, he said. there are two women here with a small baby girl. They are very poor and they've nothing to eat. I've promised them, that they'll live like queens and from now on they'll never go short of anything. They're willing for anything. I've already been with one of them and she's a 'piece of alright'...
Everyone laughed, but I couldn't understand - here we all were, suspended between life and death, searching desperately for a safe, secure hiding place - and not just for a day or two - and his head is full of finding 'amusement'? But perhaps that was what helped more than any of his promises?
I didn't want to tell them that there were four of us, so that they wouldn't get scared, he said. at first I told them just about myself. Afterwards I said that I had a brother and I came out to get him. Mannik and I will sleep inside. I'll sleep with Janka, the one I've already 'seen to'. You, Mannik, if you play your cards right, will sleep in the other bed. If not - sleep on the floor. You two, Bereleh and Semen, you'll both sleep out here under the awning, for tonight. Tomorrow morning, we'll all start building a bunker for the two of you, under the awning. When we've got the trust of these two women, we'll tell them that there're four of us.
There were a few bales of straw under the awning. We prepared some sort of a 'couch' for ourselves to sleep on but because of the intense cold, we couldn't fall asleep all night long. The wind and cold penetrated everywhere. My leg was intensely painful. In the morning Jurziek and Mannik came and we all started digging. The earth under the awning wasn't frozen, so we managed to get down deep fairly quickly. We knew, that even if we didn't manage to roof it over in one day, at least it would be a trifle warmer in the hole than it had been the previous night.
Later on, Janka came to bring a hot drink for Jurziek and Mannik. I managed to hide in time but she noticed Semen and Jurziek quickly introduced him as a Russian pilot, whose aircraft had been brought down. Janka said:
I don't understand. When you came, you said that you were alone. Afterwards, you said that you had a brother. Now there's another one? How many of you are there, for God's sake?
That's it!. That's all! We're three, said Jurziek. But not much later, the second woman, Jula, entered the awning, apparently interested in seeing the third guest, Semen, and she discovered me in the hole.
You bastards! she shrieked. How the hell many of you are there? Jula called out to Janka and she came running.
There's another one! she told her.
Jurziek swore by everyhting dear to him, that there really were no more that we were a group of four. There were no more. Not a single one! He introduced Semen and me to Janka and Jula, but they had already lost their trust in Jurziek and started looking in every corner for some more people. In the end, when it became clear that there really were no more, they burst into a fit of laughing which infected all of us.
As it was in Farmer Karpyuck's yard, so it was here: after we had gone down about a metre or so, the ground began to get muddy from water which was seeping up and we were unable to continue. As evening fell, Jurziek, Mannik and Semen went to get provisions. Because of my bad leg, I stayed under the awning. I put a layer of straw on the bottom of the muddy hole and tried to lie down on it and sleep, but the straw simply soaked up the water and became wet and muddy. Having no alternative, I just sat down outside. After some time, Janka came to visit me and when she saw how I was 'managing', she had pity on and saying there was no point in my sitting there under the awning and took me into the house.
I had a strange feeling finding myself alone in the company of the two women, so different, each from the other. Janka, somewhere in her twenties, was tall and well-built and, because of her size, appeared older; in my eyes she appeared the dominant of the two. She was broad-shouldered, with fleshy arms and legs, round-headed with a pug-nose and greyish eyes always watering, as if she was on the point of shedding tears, and a deep, quiet voice. She was shy and spoke little. Jula was short and very thin, flat-chested and wrinkle-faced. Her nose was small and pointed, her blinking eyes always half-closed, her hair black and wild and her voice husky and raised. She talked a lot and when she did, the veins in her temples and neck stood out. She was a tense and easily angered person. She was raising her year-old daughter alone. The child's name was Kazia and her father had been a passing German soldier.
Late at night my three friends returned, heavily laden down with sacks of provisions. Jurziek had also brought two head-scarves, which he gave to Janka and Jula, both of whom thanked him with a kiss. After we had all eaten, the four of us lay down on the floor to sleep. Jurziek entered into a discussion with Janka, trying to persuade her to let him join her in her bed, but she rejected the idea out of hand - she was embarrassed because of our presence. But when we awoke in the morning, we found, to our surprise, Jurziek fast asleep next to her.
Such a long time had passed since I last awoke from a night's sleep, inside a house. It was like waking up in another world, one only dimly remembered. I suddenly recalled one of our summer-chalets from before the war. It was a nice feeling to wake up and see a roof above my head, white-washed walls around me, the light coming through the window. Jula, who was cursing the stove because she couldn't get it to light, and her baby, Kazia, who was crawling all over us, brought me back to reality and made me think of what a odd house we were in.
The house was very small indeed. It was just one room, part of it occupied by the cooking-stove and oven. On each side were two small alcoves, used as larders for the food and utensils. In two of the corners of the room were the beds of Janka and Jula, while between them, under the window, was a table. All the remaining area of the room was taken up by us, on the floor.
It was good under the roof of Janka and Jula - perhaps too good. Suddenly, in the midst of the hard days of winter - a heated home, hot meals on the table. Can it really go on for long? Something disturbed our tranquility; something bothered us with thoughts of a trap. We discussed our position together, in one of the little alcoves behind the stove. Jurziek analysed the situation: We had found two women without the means to support themselves; now they were satisfied because they had us to look after all their needs, but soon they would be sated and their thoughts would begin to revolve around the danger facing them in our company. Then, they would either force us to leave - or inform on us. Therefore, we had to do something that would make them want us.
I suggest, said Jurziek, that two of us 'fall in love' with the two women. I'll fall in love with Janka, and as you've already seen, that process has already begun, and the second lover has to be Semen, because Jula looks to me to be a little anti-Semitic, and you, Semen, don't forget that you're a Gentile - a Russian pilot who's been shot down; she'll be glad to have a lover like you.
Semen seemed surprised and embarrassed by the mission placed upon him - would he really succeed as this ugly woman's lover, who also seemed to be rather a difficult personality? And how can he pretend to be a Gentile when he knew nothing about Christian habits and customs? On the other hand, in times like these a wanted man can hardly be choosey. The opportunity to live the life of a married man, even if its with such an ugly woman, is a rare blessing, to say nothing of sleeping in a bed rather than on the floor. One way or the other there wasn't much choice; our lives were dependant upon the success of the two 'lovers' and that same day, they began with their task.
When evening fell, someone knocked on the door. We four immediately hid in one of the alcoves behind the stove but when Jula opened the door, she came and told us it was alright to come out, the visitor was her brother. We came out of our hiding place and saw a young man, tall, about twenty-something, wearing a light leather coat and high boots. On his shoulder was an 'Obriz', the nickname of a short-barrelled rifle, with a shortened stock, that could be easily hidden under the coat. Jula quickly introduced her brother Stasiek and we shook hands with a heavy heart. Jurziek told the women to bring a bottle of vodka and some food to entertain the guest. He warned us not to drink too much - Let him drink as much as he wants.
We sat in such a way that the guest could never command all of us at one glance. After we'd had a few drinks - the women drank too - the atmosphere became a little relaxed and the conversation flowed. Our guest suddenly asked if we'd be willing to join him and his friend Wladek, in a little robbery they were planning. Jurziek replied without hesitation, that we were prepared to take part in any robbery - and again glasses were raised to the new partnership.
Although we were all sitting together as one, the conversation was mainly between Jurziek and Stasiek. Stasiek said that we would soon meet his friends, Pan Palka and Bronek two 'good guys'.
We haven't seen either of them for a long time,said Janka. Who knows if they're still alive?
Then the brother told us that he had noticed a small farmhouse, where an old couple were living together with their daughter.
Although there's not much there to take, they have got a pig that's not too bad and some geese, which we could certainly do with right now. Their cabin is a little way from the village, and it'll be easy but we need a couple of men - two or three to catch the pig, kill it and butcher it, and at least two to be on guard against 'uninvited guests' and who will help to carry everything here.
We're three, said Jurziek, and when Stasiek indicated four of us, added, laying his hand on me, this one doesn't come. He's still a child.
Stasiek agreed. Good, then he can stay behind and look after the women, he said. Everyone started laughing and I didn't know where to put myself for embarrassment. It was agreed, that in an evening or two Stasiek would come with his friend Wladek, and they'd all go out together on the robbery. When Jula's brother left and went on his way, we continued to sit and drink vodka with the two women. The vodka had its effect on us. Jula and Janka were surprised because we didn't know who this Pan Palka was.
But he's famous. He's the biggest robber in the whole district. The government had a big price on his head for whoever captured him. He's always the real commander, Janka said with enthusiasm.
Then Jula, who had been sitting quietly all the time, said:
Palka has got mistresses in every village - and Janka's one of them.
Janka didn't deny what Jula had said, only said that Palka hadn't been to visit them for a long time.
And who's this Bronek? asked Jurziek.
I'll tell you about Bronek, said Jula. That bastard was once very respectable, but he's very hot-blooded and when he loses his temper he also gets involved in fights. Once, at a wedding in the village, a fight broke out. Bronek, of course, was involved in it, as usual. One of the men there insulted him and Bronek doesn't like being insulted. He got hold of the man and cut his finger off with a knife in front of everybody. The victim was the member of a big powerful family in the village and Bronek had to get out of the village, and the area for quite a long time. After, perhaps more than six-months, when it seemed as though the business of the finger had been forgotten, there was another wedding in the village. Bronek came to the wedding and enjoyed himself, drinking with all his old friends; he drank a lot. The guy with the missing finger was also there together with his family. The wedding went on without any trouble, and everyone thought that it would all pass over quietly. But when the dancing started, all the men in the other family suddenly got up and attacked Bronek, who was quite drunk, beating him up severely and then tying him up with rope. They brought a log of wood and an axe and placed it in the centre of the room. They brought Bronek, tied up like an animal - he asked for help from those around but everyone was too scared to lift a finger to help him - two of the men grabbed his right hand and laid it on the log. Then at a command given by the father of the family, they lopped off three of his fingers with one blow. That same evening, Bronek swore vengeance on the family. He waited a long time for the wounds on his hand to heal, then he got a rifle and trained himself to shoot using only his little finger on the trigger. When he felt himself ready, he waited in ambush on the road from the village to Chelm. At night, under the light of a full moon, when he found the whole family returning from a Fair at Chelm, he killed them all - the father, mother, two sons, the wife of one of them and both horses. From that same day Bronek has been the man most wanted by all the police forces in the area; he lives underground and never sleeps two nights running in the same place. Afterwards, he joined up with Palka and became a thief.
Of Wladek, the third in the gang, not much was said. Jula only commented that the guy was born unlucky and had never succeeded in anything that he had done. When he tried to steal some chickens, he was caught, beaten and sent to prison. When he did manage to rob a farmer and escape out of the house with the spoils, he was shot in the leg by the same farmer. Instead of returning home with plunder, he returned home with a bullet in the knee and until this day is limping.
From our first days in their company, we understood quite well the probable character of the two of the women. We knew that they were certainly not the most trustworthy of women but we had never guessed that their home was a den of thieves - a meeting place for robbers and murderers. There is no doubt, that if we'd had an alternative, we would not have remained there an instant; if it had been summer-time and we could have slept outside, in the forest, we would have been out of there once and for all. But outside the most terrible cold ruled the world - and we had nowhere to go. There was nothing we could do but knowingly endanger ourselves, and remain.
Under the influence of the vodka, the mood of the women continued to be gay, even after Stasiek had left the house. Jurziek sat close to Janka, hugging her and spilling sentiments into her ear; Janka laughed out loud. Semen, who remembered that he, too, needed to act, got up and moved to sit closer to Jula and he too started whispering 'sweet nothings' in her ear. Jula was surprised - almost certainly, her ears hadn't heard the like for a long time since. She cursed Semen laughingly but seemed pleased and he started to hug her and feel her body with his hands. Jula was compliant and asked him if it was true that he was a Christian and to which church did he belong. Semen explained that his parents belonged to the Provoslavist Church but he was educated into the communist régime so had he never been to church. Within a few minutes Jula had manuvered Semen into the bed and Jurziek and Janka followed not long after to her bed.
Mannik and I went to sleep on the floor.
The condition of my frost-bitten foot got steadily worse. The pain was unbearable. The little toe, which had blackened, became filled with pus and started to rot like a dead body and when I took my shoe off the stink was horrific and filled the whole room. Jula, who saw the toe, said it had to be amputated as soon as possible - before the whole leg became infected and had to go....or I would die from it. I became very frightened and said that it was ...nothing and would soon get better, and tried to hide the terrible pain.
One evening Stasiek came with his friend, Wladek, a man of about forty, limping badly and, as had been agreed, Jurziek, Mannik and Semen went out with them. They joked with me saying, Look after the women!
I felt really rotten. They all went out on the robbery and I have to stay at home with the women. They think of me as a child! On the other hand, I really wouldn't have been able to walk all that well because of my foot. So I waited at home with Janka and Jula for the return of the group. Janka was tense; all the time she prayed that 'her' Jurziek would come back safely and I realised how much she loved him. Jula, who in the beginning, didn't seem to be over-concerned, eventually became 'infected' and she, too, began to pray for Semen's safe return.
Late at night, they all came home with sacks on their backs, but their faces said that not all was as it should be.
There are geese in the sacks, said Jurziek to the women, make something to eat because we're starving.
He opened a bottle and poured everyone a drink. Apparently all had gone well. They arrived at the farm and decided not to go into the house. Two of them stood guard and three went into the pigsty to catch and slaughter the only pig there. But the pig slipped between their hands and bolted. The three ran after it but couldn't catch it. In despair, they found the goose-pen, went in, caught some geese, and killing them, put them in the sacks. At that point, the farmer, woken up by the noise of the disturbed geese, went out to see what all the noise was about. Mannik and Wladek, who were guarding the house, caught him, took him back into the house, got his wife and daughter out of bed, and lay all three of them on the floor. The farmer wasn't very rich; there was virtually nothing worth taking in the house, nevertheless Wladek and Stasiek took whatever came to hand - clothes, boots, the head of a sewing-machine. Stasiek suggested that the plunder be divided among everyone but Jurziek said we didn't need the clothes; we'd be happy with our share of the geese.
The evening was wonderful. The geese were very tasty. While we were eating Stasiek said:
The size of our success is unimportant. What is important is that we're a good team and can work well together. Soon we'll go out again and steal a pig - and this one won't get away!
Before a week passed, Stasiek and the limping Wladek again appeared, ready for 'work'.
Fellers, we're off to work, Stasiek said. and this time I've chosen a good farm. There're a few pigs there. One thing's not so good - the farm is in the village, but it's quite close to the forest and we've got an easy and quick line of retreat. He seemd a little nervous, and added: This time we'll need the youngster.
His words fell on me like a blow. My heart began to pound until I was sure that everyone could hear it. I hid my feelings - after all, I wanted to take part with them, why was I so nervous? But Jurziek said that my leg was really bad and that it would be better if I stayed at home.
Can you walk? Stasiek asked me, and I, afraid that if I didn't go with them this time they'd never invite me to join them again, said that I could walk.
We're too few, Stasiek said. I want this to be done quietly. We won't go into the house. Three will guard. One next to the door, one next to the window near the door and one next to the window at the back of the house. The other three go into the pigsty. We'll choose the biggest one there, I'll kill it, we'll stuff it in the sack and get out of there - got it?
Yes! we all answered as one. No one asked any questions. We got dressed and went out. It wasn't too cold. There was a full moon and it was possible to see quite a long way on the expanse of snow. Now and again heavy clouds hid the moon and then one could 'feel' the darkness, until the clouds passed and the moon came to illuminate everything again. It was quiet all around. I could hear only the squeaking of the snow under our feet as we walked, the barking of dogs here and there, and the subdued noise of vehicles
which came from a distant road. The noise of the cars carried me back to our house in Lodz, the day the Germans entered the city. When we sat at home, then, my mother, my sister Devorah and my little brother Yankeleh, after my father and brother Mottel had escaped from the city the previous day - we heard outside the noise of vehicles and tanks moving down the street, all day long, like boiling lava sliding down a volcano's slopes, flooding and engulfing the whole country. From that, my thoughts jumped like a speeded-up film over all the years that had passed since then: the escape to Warsaw, my father's burial in Prushkow, life in the ghetto in Warsaw, the escape from the ghetto, Turobin, the seventeen-months of hell in Sobibor, the revolt, the escape, living in the forest, the bunker, the sudden attack, Avraham, Szaje, Karichona, Schnabel.....
Is it possible that all that really happened? And if so, how is it possible that I am still alive? And now? Am I really marching with a band of robbers to steal a pig? No! No, it's impossible that all this has happened in reality. It is more reasonable to think that it's all a dream, a crazy illusion......
We arrived at the forest and began to walk along its edge. Stasiek stopped and explained to us that we were close to the village and that this was our meeting point, afterwards - whether we were successful or not. Then he distributed the tasks between us: he, Jurziek and Wladek will go into the sty and kill the pig; Mannik, Semen and I would watch the house.
We continued moving on, passing a few farms which stood some dist-ance from each other. In spite of it being early evening, the village was com-pletely quiet and no light shone anywhere. We stopped next to the house which was our objective and Stasiek went to quieten the dog - he had a way of doing so - and after a minute or two he came back and sent Mannik to guard the back of the house, Semen he posted near the door and me near the window. Stasiek, Jurziek and Wladek, armed with two rifles, walked to the sty, and we stood on guard with empty hands. We had only the empty sacks.
It had been nice and warm while we were walking. Now we were freezing and my leg was hurting terribly. Although we had been told that there was no danger of anyone interfering with us, that the farmer would be afraid to leave his house, I stood guard shivering with cold and fear. Time stood still. In the silence, I heard everything that happened in the sty - the opening of the gate, the grunting of the disturbed pigs - and I couldn't understand why the operation took so much time. I prayed that it would all be over soon. It wasn't pleasant standing alone next to the window. Suddenly I heard footsteps. Turning my head I saw a shadowy figure walking towards the door, where Semen stood, flattened against the wall. Semen jumped him, and with a quick movement threw the sack he was carrying over his victim's head and began to struggle with him, trying to hold him with his two hands. I stood stock-still not knowing what to do,but immediately ran to the sty to tell Stasiek what was happening. We all raced back towards Semen and at that moment the man struggled free from his grip, drew a knife from his pocket and stabbed Semen in the back - luckily only a surface wound - and shouted: Robbers! Robbers!
Within the house, someone went up to the attic and called from the window: Help! Robbers and at then a moment later the church bells began to peal. Stasiek fired twice in the direction of the attic and the cries for help stopped, he then ordered us to run for it. We ran in the direction of the forest, with the sound of the church bell pealing in our ears, together with men shouting and the escaped pigs squealing. At our meeting point, we discovered that Jurziek was missing. At first,we were sure that he, too, had run towards the forest and would get here at any second, but with each passing moment we became more and more worried. We lay on the ground in order to see better, we gave our own old signal Tssss but there was no response. A great fear settled on us. We've lost Jurziek! In the meantime, the village became silent and while we were weeping over Jurziek, we heard footsteps, followed by Tssss!and gratefully we replied. Jurziek appeared, alive and well! When you all ran, he told us, I also wanted to run. But then I thought to come all this way and then go back empty-handed -it wasn't worth it! So I decided to stay. I crept into the goose-run, and lay there quietly. In the meantime I had the opportunity to catch and strangle some geese. When the 'hue-and-cry' subsided, and everyone went to sleep, I collected up the geese - and here I am!
I was quite angry at Jurziek for having caused me those minutes of anxiety and despair, but I was also proud of him and admired his bravery. For sometime we laughed and joked about it all but the general feeling wasn't good - twice we gone out on an important mission and twice we had failed - getting a pig was very important, we could guarantee ourselves meat and fat for the whole winter. Stasiek was edgy and cursed the farmers. He accepted that he was responsible for the failure and apologised: I didn't think that someone would come from outside. I should have posted someone with a gun.
I, too, although no one had accused me, felt a little guilty that I hadn't acted differently. Instead of running to raise the alarm, I should have hit the man with a stone or even joined in the attack together with Semen with my bare hands. Then Jurziek said suddenly:
I know a very rich farm, rather isolated and a long way from the village, and there are pigs there. We can go there now. We've learned something from our mistakes. I'm sure we can get ourselves a pig - come on! We can't go home without a pig, after all that!
Stasiek agreed to the idea without hesitation. Again we found ourselves walking a few kilometres until we arrived at our new destination. The farm really did look prosperous. A fine two-storeyed house was standing there, its roof made of galvanized metal, a very rare thing in that area. The yard was large, with a barn, chicken runs and cow-sheds. This time Wladek, Mannik and Semen watched the house, two of them armed with rifles, Mannik was the one without a gun. I didn't have a special task so I moved from place to place. In the pigsty were five, medium-sized pigs. This time Stasiek and Jurziek succeeded in killing a pig, quickly, and I was sent running to get sacks. I ran into the barn where there were sacks of wheat standing. I poured out all the of wheat and took the sacks back. But when everything was already packed, Stasiek and Jurziek decided to kill another pig. We took all our plunder far from the house, where I stayed on watch, while the four returned to kill another pig. Unlike the first robbery, where I had stood and shivered from cold and fear, here, for some reason, I was relaxed and sure of myself all through the operation, even when I was alone in the field I was calm. There was complete silence all around. It seemed that in the farm everyone was sleeping very deeply. When I suddenly heard the squeal of a pig then again silence, I knew that the second pig was dead too. After a short time I saw all the group making their way towards me.
It was now very late and we had a walk of some fifteen kilometres - with the heavy load of two pigs and a sack full of geese, clearly we were not going to be able to get all the way back before dawn. Jurziek found a solution. He led us to a farm, some distance away, which I identified immediately - it was the farm where we had always used as a meeting point while we were in the forest; it was the place where we had parted from Avraham and Shia'h, while we now stood there - a gang of thieves - Jurziek hid part of our spoils in the barn and the rest we carried on our long walk back until, nearly at dawn, we got home to Janka and Jula.
The following day was a day of gorging and boozing. Everyone was happy and satisfied. An evening that had begun with a marked failure ended with complete success. Stasiek didn't stop praising our Jurziek, and cont-inually stated that we were his best friends, talking about our next combined operation. With high spirits, with everyone drunk, to a greater or lesser degree, someone noticed that I was the only one in the group with a Jewish name. In spite of the fact that the two women called me Barak, a name that had a slightly Polish ring to it, it remained a Jewish name, and now it was decided to find me a pure Polish name and the names of Christian saints were suggested, one after the other. In the camp Wagner had called me 'Boris'. Stoibel called me 'Franz' and Frenschel just called me names. Now, a Polish name was being searched for, except that Polish names didn't seem to fit my Jewish face. When Mannik came up with the name 'Bolek' the diminutive of 'Boleslaw' a name that resembled 'Berl' or 'Barak', I joined in the conversation going on around me and my name, for the first time, and agreed immediately, but Jula said that she'd never heard of a saint with the name of 'Bolek' or 'Boleslaw'. Mannik explained to her that in Poland's history there had been two Polish kings - Boleslaw Chrobry and Boleslaw Krsywousty, and with everyone's agreement my name was changed to 'Bolek' - and again glasses of vodka were raised in honour of the event. With the coming of evening, Stasiek and Wladek took themselves off home, Jurziek, Manik and Semen went to bring the pig that we had hidden in the barn of 'our' farmer, without him knowing, and I stayed at home. My leg was even worse and now I couldn't even stand on it or take a step.
After my friends had quietly removed the pig from the barn, Jurziek went to visit the farmer himself. The farmer told him innocently, that a gang of thieves had been raiding the area recently and there was no safety for man or property. Yesterday, he related, there were two incidents in the area. In one incident, the robbers got into the pigsty. By chance, the farmer's son returned home, struggled with one of the robbers and overcame him. He called for help and the villagers managed to chase the thieves away. In the second incident, the thieves came late at night, when everyone was asleep. They surrounded the farmer's house, broke into the pigsty and slaughtered two pigs. The farmer awoke to the squealing of the pigs, stood next to the window and saw the gang wandering around the farmyard with their rifles and then leaving with their plunder, and didn't do a thing - he was afraid that they'd try to get into his house and was satisfied that they cleared off with their loot
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