I was happy to return to Chelm. I felt as if I had been away from there for a long time. It was good to see the friends I had made there, all the forlorn people, each one with his own unbelievable story, every single one of them snatched from the fire, from the very jaws of inevitable death, the sole survivor of a large family, this one of a small village, that one of an entire region and all of them alive now, without any clear goal, not knowing which way to turn in order to find the future. I loved them all and felt that they loved me, too.
Jurziek took me with him to the market, to sell the goods we had bought in Warsaw. He took a large bundle of clothes, giving me a smaller pile, telling more-or-less the price that I should ask and the minimum I should accept. We stood a few steps from each other. Jurziek shouted his wares in a loud voice and in a few minutes was surrounded with men and women and started selling one item after the other. All the time, I stood like a dummy next to my pile. Time after time, a women came and rummaged through the pile, asked the price, left me and moved to Jurziek. Within two hours, Jurziek managed to sell nearly everything he had, during which time I had managed to sell just one dress, and that at a low price. I felt terrible. I was ashamed and felt myself somewhat useless. Why was I such a failure? At that moment, I decided in my heart that I would never again go to a market as a trader. Jurziek understood how I felt and took all the goods from me, while I stood to one side and enjoyed watching how he managed to sell the goods. When a woman approached him and he demanded a high price for a dress, and she offered a lower one, he remained adamant and unmoved, allowing her to walk away.
Why didn't you sell it to her, I asked, after all, it was a fair price she offered you?Later he showed me a floral-patterned frock, which was badly torn and wasn't worth a farthing.
Don't worry, she'll be back he replied, and it was so.
Do you want to see something good? You'll see how I manage to sell this frock.He held it folded in his hand, shouting:
Who wants this beautiful frock? Dirt cheap; almost free.Women rushed to see the frock and examine it, but Jurziek wouldn't let it out of his hands and the women remained with their arms outstretched. Quite quickly they began competing with one another, every one of them trying to out-do the other so much, that the examination of the article became secondary and forgotten. Here and there women stretched out money to him until eventually, one of them won the prize to the great jealousy of all the others. Within seconds, the woman discovered she had purchased a torn dress, and red with anger turned to Jurziek with her complaint. He only laughed and replied that blind people shouldn't play cards. Everyone laughed out loud, but Jurziek had no desire, in truth, to cause the woman distress and returned the woman's money to her, earning the respect of the crowd for his fairness.
At that time, I became friendly with a group of Jewish partisans in Chelm, who earlier had served east of the Bug with a famous unit of partisans. These fighters were due to go to Moscow to get medals in recognition of their deeds of valour, and in the meantime, they, too, were looking for some means of making money. They invited me to try and get some Russian currency for them and were prepared to pay a small percentage on top of the official rate. I wandered round the shops, buying Russian money at a slightly higher rate than the banks were paying. In the beginning I felt very uncomfortable going into shops and asking their owners if they wanted to sell Russian money, the more so because, since leaving the forests, and becoming a free man, I'd had virtually no contact with the Polish population, and in fact with anyone who knew nothing of my suffering. I felt easy only among Jews who had suffered like me. Trading in currency was illegal and dangerous and that made the shop-owners suspicious of me. I soon gained their confidence, however, and became a welcome guest - when I entered a shop they would greet me with Welcome, Mr. Bolek, and a wide smile on their faces; there were those who offered me a drink and enjoyed conversing with me. Slowly, my reservations about meeting people receded. On the contrary, I began to love the contact with strangers, with whom I had nothing in common, perhaps because I didn't have to tell them anything, perhaps because they related towards me as an adult. Even the question that so angered me - How did you manage to survive? didn't bother me any more.
There were a few shops in Chelm where I sensed some anti-Semitism as soon as I walked in, and there I didn't visit a second time. But in my 'business' I was blessed. Every day, I went the round of the shops, the owners would sell me all their Russian currency and I would sell it to the partisan group at a good profit. Some of them asked me if I couldn't get hold of some dollars and gold coins, because there wasn't much faith in the new Polish currency. I knew two Jews who dealt in foreign currency, and in this way I, too, entered into the business. The trade in foreign currency interested me a lot, in the beginning, because it was spiced with a lot of tension and danger and one needed to be on the look out the whole time and something of a detective. The prices changed like quicksilver and the first to know of any change in an earlier price knew what to buy and what to sell and earned a good salary. I enjoyed the element of risk involved and not only that - I was earning money for myself, without the help of anyone - even Jurziek. In the beginning the dealers in foreign currency, all of them adults, made fun of me and the fact that I was small, but quickly began to relate to me more seriously as an equal. Because I had managed to gain people's trust many preferred to deal with me.
Mannik, Jurziek's brother, finished his Officers' Course and came home on leave. He was an excellent student and proud of himself. At first glance everything seemed to be in order, Mannik was happy in the army and saw his future career as an army officer, but after a few healthy swigs drinks of vodka and a conversation on into the night, it became clear that in the renewed Polish army there was anti-Semitism. Mannik fought against it every time he came up against it, but not always successfully and expressed some doubts as to whether he could cope with it, in the long term. Only his stubbornness and his faith that he would eventually get to a senior command, where he could exercise his influence and change things, kept him going. Mannik told us more, that the main task of the Polish army was to fight the underground Right-wing Nationalist, many of whom were in the area and with whom he had already managed to meet in combat. I had already heard about the underground, but had no idea that it had reached such considerable proportions.
Jurziek was proud of his officer-brother but was worried nevertheless and said that he his heart was warning him of evil things. He begged his brother to resign his commission and leave the army and I added my pleas, but all to no avail.
It was a good feeling to be together again. The three of us were one unit, complete and strong. I was sorry only that Semen wasn't with us. Since he had re-enlisted in the Russian army all contact with him had been lost and I wondered what had happened to him and why he didn't write - perhaps he had been killed? My feeling was that we, we four, must live - and need to live together.
Mannik laughed at my involvement in foreign currency transactions. I wouldn't have believed it of you, he said. Jurziek is a born business man and will be all his life, but you shouldn't be doing that. You're young, only seventeen. You've got to go and study and make something of yourself.
I took pleasure in the fact that Mannik was concerned about me. There was no doubt that we were brothers at heart.
During Mannik's leave, we heard that in Majdanek, near Lublin, several SS men, who were captured when the Soviet army entered there, were going to be hanged. We decided to go there to watch the event. Early in the morning, we went to the railway station and jumped on a wagon of one of the military transport trains, where we met a woman of about thirty years-of-age, and with her a youth. We were in a good mood - we were on the way to take vengeance on our murderers. We ate well from a picnic lunch that we had prepared for ourselves, inviting the woman and the youth to join us. The time passed quickly. Suddenly ahead of us, near a small station in the suburbs of Lublin, the train slowed down. We heard a noise, as if lots of things were being smashed up and when I looked ahead in the direction of the noise, I saw that all the wagons, one after the other were toppling off the tracks, like so many domino tiles. At the same moment Jurziek shouted Jump! The three of us jumped from the wagon. I landed awkwardly and sprained my ankle but apart from that we were all O.K. Within seconds, our own wagon had overturned. The woman who had been travelling with us, hadn't jumped in time and went over with the wagon, getting crushed to death on the spot. The youth I couldn't see at all, anywhere. Jurziek and I wanted to run and see if anyone needed help but Mannik told us that we should get away as quickly and as far as possible, so as not to get involved with the security forces.
We arrived at Lublin several hours late and missed the hangings. We went to the Lublin Jewish Komitet a big house, humming with people and activity where I met people who had earlier been in Chelm. It was from them that I heard that in Lublin there were several survivors from Sobibor, among them Leibel Feldhendler, one of the leaders of the revolt. In the evening we met them. Even though each knew already that the other had survived, the meeting was quite emotional. We decided to organize a proper get-together of all the Sobibor survivors.
The get-together took place about a fortnight later in Lublin. There were about twenty of us. among them Leibel Feldhendler, Yitzhak the shoemaker, his wife, Eda, Zuckermann, the cook and his son Yosef, Samuel, who looked after the horses, Esther, Selma and Ula, the Dutch girls, Meir Suess, Szklarek, Avraham Margolis and others. It was from those present, that I heard of about ten other survivors from Sobibor who were known to be alive, among them the leader of the revolt itself, Sasha Pechersky. What had happened to the hundreds of people who had managed to escape from the camp at the time of the revolt? Some were caught by the Germans during the massive manhunt that was launched immediately after the break-out; others were caught by the Germans during the following year, most of them because of local informers; some were killed by Polish or Ukrainian murderers or by getting killed in partisan actions in which they took part; and there were those who simply disappeared as though the earth had just swallowed them up. The evening and night were too short to hear the survival stories of everyone. People told us how their comrades had been killed, and I told of our group, of whom only three remained, about the slaughter in the second bunker, about Szaje the Gardener and Avraham, who had both been killed the day after we separated from them.
A year ago we had all been in Sobibor. Not one of us expected to leave there alive and here we were, sitting in Lublin, free men! It was unbelievable. Again I heard people calling me 'Bereleh', my nickname since birth, which I hadn't heard since the party when the robbers had given me the name 'Bolek'; again I was wrapped in the affection that people had shown me in Sobibor. I remembered the help they had given me during the hard times, for if not for them, long ago I would have ceased to be among the living of this world. Suddenly it seemed as if we were in Sobibor, as if we had never left there...I heard the screech of the locomotive whistle as it shunted the wagons into the siding, the people getting off the wagons quietly, in an orderly fashion, marching, family after family, at the corner of the awning being separated by Wagner, men from the women and children, I see how they undress and arrange their belongings according to the instructions given them by Oberscharf?hrer Mischel, then walking between the two barbed-wire fences towards the gas-chambers............................
Bereleh, what's the matter? - Someone asked me - You look as if you're going to burst out crying. You should be happy. We managed to stay alive!About a week later, I was shocked to hear that Leibel Feldhendler had been murdered. Before Leibel and his family were taken to Sobibor, he had managed to make arrangements to transfer part of his property to a farmer of his acquaintance in a nearby village. Leibel entered into negotiations with the man regarding the return of the property and for that reason had travelled to the village. He was expected back in Lublin the same night. When he failed to return, his friends went out looking for him and found him lying murdered, by the roadside, not far from the village.
From the moment I became free, I couldn't believe that I was alive. The thought constantly pursued me that I had to die, that everyone had died and my place was with them; It was unnatural that I should be alive. Several times I had dreamt that I was in Sobibor and within the dream, I knew that I had been there before and had escaped, and I couldn't understand how it was that I was again there. All these dreams ended with my death. Leibel's death only confirmed my own anxieties.
The rumours we were hearing of Jews being murdered in Poland after the liberation from the Nazi conquest, caused me to want to get hold of a weapon. Among those who came to the Komitet was a young, Russian Jewish pilot, with a youthful, smiling face, a tall, thin man, who couldn't speak Yiddish, didn't know anything about Judaism but nevertheless came to spend all his spare time with us. He usually brought with him food and any other commodities that he could acquire and would eat with us and sometimes sleep in the Komitet I had quickly become friends with him. I had asked other soldiers whom I knew to get me a gun and they had refused unequivocally and had even made fun of the request. Not so my friend the pilot. When I told him that even today, we were still living in danger and I needed the pistol to defend myself, and told him about Leibel only now being murdered, he didn't laugh and he wasn't angry. His expression became serious and thoughtful and he eventually said:
I'll get you a pistol.And within a day or two, he indeed arrived, and taking me to a quiet corner, took out of his pocket a small pistol, that looked almost like a toy, with two magazines loaded with bullets and placed the lot in my hand.
I felt as though I had received some kind of holy article for safe-keeping and asked him how much I owed him. He laughed and said:
I'm glad that I'm able to give it to you as a present. Only understand that it's not a toy, it's a real weapon that can kill a man. Don't tell anyone that I gave it to you, or I'll end up in prison.The pistol became an integral part of me and it never left me, night or day.
The Jewish High Holydays approached and the Komitet became a synagogue. An Ark was placed in the main hall and benches arranged there and in the courtyard. From somewhere, Scrolls of the Law were found and brought, together with prayer books and a Shofar. Nothing was missing. Everyone expected a large congregation of Jewish soldiers from both the Russian and Polish armies. The Festivals brought upon me a mood of sadness and disquiet. I was unable to define my feelings. In Sobibor I had ceased to believe in God, so what was the point in taking part in prayers? I didn't recognize my place any longer as being among the believers and as such, I should distance myself from the prayers and the synagogue. But at the same time, I felt myself drawn to the synagogue; I missed the prayers and the special atmosphere of New Year and the Day of Atonement, which, in itself, took me back to the days when my home still existed. Neither could I betray and hurt the memory of my parents and all my family, who had died in the arms of their faith. I couldn't break the cord which bound me to Judaism. I drowned in the perplexities and confusions at the root of my indecision and didn't know what to do.
New Year's Eve arrived. Everyone prepared for the festival, washed and put on the best clothes they had available. Jurziek's uncle lit the festival candles and wished us all a good year. In the hall itself was a myriad of memorial candles. Jurziek's uncle gave me a prayer book. Everything was so like New Year's Eve in our own home. I looked at Jurziek's uncle and aunt, at Jurziek and at Mannik, who was on leave, at the girl Wanda - and saw my father and mother, sister and brother, in our house in Lodz on New Year's Eve, my mother lighting the candles and all of us walking to the synagogue.............
In the courtyard, I met Janek, smart and clean, standing alone in a corner.
Are you going to pray? I asked him.We both stood there, in the courtyard, looking at the people coming together. We knew all of them except the soldiers and officers, who were coming here for the first time. The cantor began the prayers and the congregation joined in. I couldn't open my mouth, I could only stare at the congregation. Was there something wrong with me? Around me, everyone was praying as one, the same prayers as always, praising the good God, the merciful God, the God Who worried over us and provided us with everything - as if nothing at all had happened during the last four years. Have we no quarrel with him? Are we not angry - raging - at this Omnipotent God, who sat up there on high, and watched how the Jewish people were being destroyed, His Chosen people, men, women, babes-in-arms, the righteous, the sinner, all as one, without distinction - and didn't raise a finger? Wasn't it more appropriate, that someone should stand up from among us and tell this God, loud and clear, in the name of all this congregation of survivors: We don't want you as our God any longer!
Of course, he replied, and you?
I don't know, I replied.
I asked myself these questions, but around me people carried on with their prayers as in days gone by, until I could not but wonder to myself whether something wasn't 'quite right' about me.
Kol Nidrei (the eve of the Day of Atonement), crowds of soldiers and officers of all ranks, streamed to the Komitet and filled the hall and the courtyard to absolute capacity, and beyond. Many were forced to stand outside the courtyard, in the street. Conspicuous among the congregation was a group of high-ranking Russian officers. I gazed at these hundreds of soldiers and officers. Most of them were not praying. They were just standing there proudly, rows of medals for bravery shining and jingling on their chests. All of a sudden I understood that most of the congregation had not come to pray to God. They had come to say:
We are Jews! We are with you! We are one People!At that moment I loved them all.
After a long struggle, and thanks to good connections with important people in the city, and with the help of the police commander - a Jewish partisan - Jurziek managed to get back his parents' house. Jurziek and I went to live there, on the second floor, where there were a room and a kitchen. The shop on the ground floor remained in the hands of a Pole who had squatted there during the war. With great wisdom and foresight, we equipped ourselves with a crate of vodka and a large quantity of other supplies and pretty soon the place had turned into a hostel for all those who were unable to find any other resting place. Every evening friends gathered together there, among whom were soldiers, police, and security personnel. Each one brought someone else. The eating and drinking carried on until well into the night. From drinking too much, many of the people were unable to get themselves home at night so they spread themselves out on the floor and slept there. Instead of being a private apartment for us, the place turned into an annex of the Komitet . More than once, Jurziek and I agreed between us that we couldn't let the situation continue, but in vain.
From time to time, Jews from the east side of the Bug arrived. Some of them continued on to Lublin after a short stay, some of them remained in Chelm, crammed into the rooms of the Komitet , in the big, main reception hall, which during the day was a hive of activity and which at night became one large dormitory. The people were waiting for the Russian army to start its attack and conquer the rest of Poland, liberating the other large centres, Warsaw and Lodz, among them.
One day Jurziek told me that he had decided to accommodate a couple from the Komitet whom he knew and liked. They'll live in the kitchen, and we in the other room, he said The woman will manage the house for us, the cooking, and so on. It'll start to be a real home.
The couple had arrived in Chelm a week previously and settled in one of the corners of the reception hall of the Komitet . The man was about forty, tall, slim and handsome, shining-faced, the woman was a little younger than he, short and rotund, neither pretty nor ugly, rather difficult to characterize. From what I had learned about them, they came from Lodz and that the woman was a proselyte. Their names were Harry and Ula. When Jurziek asked me my opinion of them I felt somewhat uncertain about them. Since my childhood years, I had preconceptions about mixed marriages. So I told him, that in my opinion, there was no need to rush headlong into things. It seemed appropriate at first, to try to discover just who and what they were. But Jurziek had already made his decision. My heart tells me that they're good people, he said.
When we approached the couple and Jurziek made them the offer of coming to stay at our house, the two stood surprised and didn't know what to say. Jurziek invited them to come and see the house. The man accompanied us and when we were in the house, asked how much was the rent, adding that he didn't know how long they would be staying in Chelm, because the moment that Lodz was liberated from the Germans, they would be returning there.
You don't have to pay a thing, said Jurziek, all that I want is that the house should be treated properly, and if your wife wants to cook for us, I'll bring all the necessary products, and some cooking utensils.The four of us transferred their belongings. Harry and Ula took off their winter coats and began energetically to put the house to rights on the spot, and we were drawn instinctively into working together with them. Surprisingly quickly, the house changed its appearance and looked as it would on a Passover Eve. It was difficult to believe, that within a few hours it had been possible to bring about such a change. Harry disappeared and returned laden down with food and supplies. Jurziek wanted to pay him but Harry seemed injured by the offer and said:
You've made a deal, said the man. I promise you that the house will be looked after perfectly. When do you want us to move in?
Now, said Jurziek.
What do you think? That I haven't got any money? I've got enough money to keep the four of us going for a whole year! And in demonstration of the fact, he drew from his pockets a supply of gold coins.That same evening we didn't want any guests. When there was a knock on the door, Ula went to the door and when the visitors saw a strange woman greeting them and asked after us, she told them that we weren't at home. Ula prepared a sumptuous meal and laid everything out on the table. The preparation and cleaning of the whole house which we had done as a team, brought us somewhat closer together, and Harry, who, we discovered had quite a good sense of humour, didn't stop entertaining us. The ice was broken between us and our first meal together took place in an open and pleasant atmosphere. Later, when we really got to know each other, the laughter stopped.
Harry told us that he was a textile engineer. His family in Lodz had owned a big textile factory. When war broke out, he and his wife had escaped to Russian-occupied territory. When the Germans conquered east Poland, they escaped again and began to hide in different places. Jurziek told of his own family, life in the forests, how he had met me, Semen and Avraham and what had happened to us all afterwards. I spoke about myself as well. Harry and Ula sat rooted on the other side of the table, and all the time I was telling my story, they never moved a muscle, just sat and stared with their eyes fixed unmoving on me - and I talked and talked until the small hours of the night.
That same night a change took place in my life, although it was only much later that I realized the fact. These two people, Harry and Ula, took us under their wing, especially me. In their opinion, I was still a child who has to be controlled and saved from straying from the paths of righteousness. They both followed all my movements and activities, without me even knowing. Ula took upon herself the role of house-mother, enforcing order over everything and worked ceaselessly - cleaning, cooking, mending, laundering and ironing our clothes. She also had demands upon us - instructing us to come to meals on time, to stop drinking so much, to keep ourselves clean and tidy - our clothes and shoes. Every morning she examined us before we left the house. And before we sat down to the table we were obliged, by her order, to wash our hands.
We thought not to pay too much attention to her demands, but she wouldn't let us get away with a thing and eventually we found ourselves doing as she wished. In time, her demands widened and began to invade all spheres of our personal lives. Every one who came to visit us, girl or boy, young or old, had to pass inspection - Ula would investigate them thoroughly, from top to bottom and side to side. Those who passed the inspection, those whom she liked were allowed through, those whom she didn't favour- were rejected, and we were required to put an end to the friendship. Quite often we were unable to comply with her demands and I frequently got very angry with her for excessive attempts to exercise control over me, which bordered on real interference with my personal freedom. But in the end we forgave her for everything because we recognized the dedication to our welfare which was behind her actions. We also knew in our hearts that her demands really were for our own good. Harry didn't interfere in the relationship between his wife and us. More than once, when we tended to disregard her, she turned to Harry and said, Perhaps you'll say a few words to the children? to which he would reply, I can see that you manage perfectly well without my help. I can only make matters worse. Harry never made any demands upon us neither did he attempt to reprove or criticise us; He always stood as if to one side. Nevertheless he had great influence on us. His wealth of knowledge and noble attitude towards us, his perception, all impressed us time and time again. Every conversation I had with him was an experience in itself. I felt that I was absorbing from him a complete education, filling my empty head. Harry discussed with me the different possibilities which might develop after the war - a topic to which I had, till now, paid no attention whatsoever and had no opinion. He sketched an outline of a future Poland and said that the government would make efforts to rehabilitate the country's economy, which had been destroyed by the war and years of Nazi occupation; there would be a dire shortage of professionals, of technicians and engineers. The Government would be forced to educate hordes of young people in the essential professions and whomsoever became thus qualified, would find all the doors opening up for him. Harry spoke on the economic situation, but from his words it was clear that I was being asked to draw my own conclusions as to where my future lay. He also spoke about the possibility of leaving Poland and going to Palestine, where he had relatives, or to America.
The long, winter evenings drew me closer to Harry and Ula. I got used to being together with them, and in harmony with them;
Ula, I allowed to continue trying to make 'a mensch' out of me.
After some time, when Mannik came home on leave again, and felt the difference which had occurred in our lives, he said:
You're no longer free men. That woman's controlling you.The struggle between the security forces, at whose head stood Russian officers, and the Polish underground Right and gangs of thieves, robbers and bandits of various sorts, gradually escalated. The clashes between the different groups, the attacks, murders, imprisonment, were a daily event. Anti-Semitism also reared its head. In spite of the small number of Jews who had survived, the number of attacks on them gradually increased and became a common event. Again and again, the murders of Jews were announced from here and there. The Polish Security Services operated ceaselessly in trying to eradicate the underground groups and Mannik, whose army unit was active in that field, would come home exhausted and tense and always slept with a loaded pistol near his head. Every rustle would bring him to his feet, stretching his hand out towards his pistol. Jurziek and I, witnesses to his constant nervousness, were extremely worried about him and again tried to convince him to resign his commission and leave the army. Mannik refused to discuss the subject. Repeated his claim that it was essential to ..free the country of enemies of the Government' and insisted that he was obliged to do that work, stating that it wouldn't take long.
Not a long time after that we had a visit from an officer who gave us the terrible news - Mannik ...had been killed fighting for the sake the Homeland. His funeral took place with full, impressive military honours. His company commander delivered a eulogy saying that ....the army had lost a fine officer, he had fought valiantly for the new Poland, and added that he had been promoted post mortem to the rank of Captain. Jurziek recited the Kaddish for his brother, the last, sole surviving member of his entire family who had been left him.
Mannik's death hit me hard. Death had for a long time been my constant companion and I had learned to live with it. I had been hardened to loosing my closest friends to it, one after the other, and had continued to live and fight for my life. But with Mannik's death I could not come to terms. How could it be that after all we had shared together, passed through together, now, after the war, he should be killed? For what did we remain alive? I'd always had the feeling that we four - Jurziek, Mannik, Semen and myself - would always live together, and if we died, we'd die together. And now, Mannik was dead and of Semen, neither sight nor sound. All taste for life seemed gone; in the event I had been right, we, too, would not long remain alive. We were all sentenced to death, in any case; we belonged to a multitude already done to death. Our place was among them. My heart contacted every time I glanced at Jurziek. I knew how much he loved and admired his brother, and how proud he was of him. How would he live from now onwards without him? Jurziek - the strongest of all of us, the magician of resourcefulness, the man who taught all of us not to be afraid, not to lose hope no matter what, to overcome all obstacles, sat, now, hour after hour, lost in thoughts and memories, totally silent, as if he had ceased to exist. There was nothing I could do to help him. I felt totally inadequate. I couldn't find a single suitable word to say to him and all the time I was terrified that he would punish himself by committing suicide. And, in truth, Jurziek blamed himself for Mannik's death - in that he had failed to convince his brother to leave the army. I should have forced him to leave, he said over and over again.
After a long period of mourning at home, isolated from the life around him, Jurziek got up one day and went out. He returned to his business activities with all his old vigour but an inordinately long time passed before I saw the hint of a smile return to his face.
One day, when I was in the Komitet I ran into an unknown family in the courtyard - a father, mother and daughter - who apparently had only recently arrived in Chelm. When I saw the daughter, I couldn't take my eyes from her. Her beauty, like nothing I had ever seen before, stunned me. She wore boots made of soft leather, close-fitting, and a coat which had evidently been made-to-measure and between the hem of her coat, which reached below her knees and her boots, could be seen her two legs, clothed in stockings. She wore a fur hat on her head which partially covered her forehead and ears, and from beneath it fell wave upon wave of blond hair. Her features were delicate, pink from the cold and two dimples decorated her cheeks. She was different from all the young girls I had ever known, whose clothes were poor and whose appearance graceless. To my eyes, she was the very epitome of grace and delicacy and hazily reminded me of girls I had seen on the streets of Lodz before the war. I looked at her in pleasure as if at a sculpture or painting, until she suddenly turned her glance on me, direct and sharp, her eyes flashing and her cheeks flushing, forcing me to look away from her.
From that day, the lovely girl troubled my peace of mind and added a new dimension to my life. I was eager to get to know her, but at the same time scared to meet her face-to-face because I didn't have any idea how to behave towards her, or what would be the appropriate thing to say to her. I was afraid of making a mess of it and failing.
Jurziek was the first to notice the difference in me.
What's happened to you? Are you in love, or something? he asked, laughing.My behaviour had, indeed changed. I began to take care with my appearance, and Ula was pleased that I began to polish my shoes every morning and wore my best clothes - she saw it as her personal achievement: within a short space of time under her tutelage, she had managed to educate me....At that same period a soft down began to appear on my face - my beard was starting to grow. I looked in a mirror and saw myself as uglier than ever before. I asked my friend Janek to shave me but he only laughed and said: You haven't got anything to shave. Come back in six-months. Perhaps then we'll have something to discuss. If you start to shave now, he warned me, your beard will grow and you'll have to shave every day.
I began to visit the Komitet frequently in the hope of seeing the girl but when I did see her my courage failed and I didn't dare approach her. Time after time I saw her in the company of fellows, who chatted with her freely, laughing together with her, and I was so jealous of them. I thought to myself that I would never find myself in her company, that I was a total failure. And then, wonder of wonders! One day I came to the Komitet and came face to face with her and without thinking, the words Good morning! came out of my mouth quite naturally and she answered me with a smile asking if I live in the Komitet. And we began to talk
My name's Bolek, I said.Her eyes sparkled like they did the first time I saw her, and her face was as red as fire. When I asked her where she had heard all this, she replied:
And my name's Zosia, she replied. I've heard a lot about you. I know you've been through a lot: you were in Sobibor and in the forests.
I wanted to know about you, so I asked. Everyone here knows you and Jurziek, your friend. They say you're a nice chap.Now it was my turn to go as red as a beetroot, and while I was still blushing, Zosia suggested that we go for a stroll and I agreed, of course, but agonized over the fact that I wasn't the one to suggest it. We went out into the snow-covered street. Snow wasn't falling, the wind wasn't blowing. We walked slowly, close together. A warm feeling spread through my body. Zosia began to tell me about herself, without me asking her. She was from Warsaw. She and her parents had escaped eastwards to the Russian occupied area. When the Germans conquered that too, the three of them had successfully hidden themselves with a Polish family. Now they were waiting for the Russians to retake Warsaw.
At that point in our stroll we had reached a café, which, Jurziek had told me, was owned by a Jewess, who had managed to hide the fact and had stayed and run the place throughout the whole period of the occupation, and even now, continues pretending to be Polish, and refusing to disclose the fact that she's Jewish. I invited Zosia in for a hot drink. When we sat down to the table, I recalled the story my mother had told us about the first time my father had taken her for a coffee, when they were out walking in Muranowska Street, in Warsaw.
That day, I was happier than I had ever been before in my life.
The expected attack of the Russian army came, at last, and shook the very earth of Poland. The German defence simply collapsed like a card-castle before the Soviet thrust. Those parts of Poland which had been conquered like lightning by the Germans, were now taken from them with the same devastating speed. The Poles received their country back and the red and white Polish flag began waving throughout the land. The Russians took west Ukraine - the 'bread-basket' of Poland, and gave in exchange German Silesia. Convoys of German prisoners were transported eastwards, to the depths of Russia, while the defeated German army retreated into Germany in an attempt to retrench with a new defence line to protect their own homeland. Poland was once again an independent nation but under the close supervision and control of the Soviets; but she again had her own Government, army and police force. The administration was again Polish. Poles who had been exiled or had escaped from the Germans, returned to their houses, their jobs, their businesses. The signs in German were quickly removed and their place retaken by Polish ones. Polish songs and music blared forth from radios. Life returned quickly to normal.
The few Jews who remained in the vicinity of Chelm and Lublin didn't feel as if they belonged. The Polish population ignored them and they felt strange and unwanted. Now they didn't have their own property, the sale of which might have been difficult; even chattels to pack up they had none - everything that was owned by the survivors could be carried in one suitcase. So most of the Jews went westwards in the footsteps of the Russian army - to seek their future in the large towns.
I found myself at a cross-roads. The time had come for me to make fateful decisions about my future. I loved Jurziek with all my soul. That man was more dear to me than I could describe, but I knew that our paths had to separate. His way of life was not to my liking and it was clear to me that the longer I stayed with him, the more I would be dependent upon him. I had no alternative but to break away from him.
Harry and Ula had invited me to go with them to Lodz, where I would live with them in their home and where I could examine what possibilities there were for myself. They said that they wanted Jurziek to come as well and he didn't refuse the offer, only said that he would join us later, while he insisted that I go with them now. It was difficult to leave him alone. We were like two people, brothers, who had been left alone in the world, and in my heart I was worried that if we parted we would never be together again, in the same way.
Harry journeyed alone to Lodz, to see, on the spot, what was happening there, and to prepare accommodation. Jurziek went somewhere on business, while I stayed at home with Ula. In the evening, round the fire she told me her story.
Her father was a doorman in the factory of Harry's father, and her mother worked there as a factory-hand. They lived in the factory, in a house adjoining the entrance. Harry, the youngest in his family, was a student, who occasionally visited the factory and he and Ula fell in love. The affair was complicated. Ula's parents objected strongly to the association of their daughter with the owner of the factory - they were worried that Harry would get fired because of it. Harry's parents - and the whole family - rejected the alliance between their son and the Christian daughter of their doorman, and tried every way to put an end to the romance. The situation became even more complicated when Ula became pregnant. Since she didn't want to add that complication to the already difficult situation, she had an abortion under doubtful conditions and almost died from infection. She recovered but became infertile. Later, when Harry decided to marry her, his whole family rejected him, even though they weren't particularly religious. Ula, who wanted so much to be accepted into the bosom of Harry's family, decided to adopt the Jewish religion, even though Harry had not asked her to do so. She went to Krakow and went through the necessary studies in a course lasting a couple of months, with a Rabbi, until he was satisfied and converted her. Then they married according to all the rites of the Jewish religion. In spite of that neither her parents, nor Harry's were present at the ceremony.
Ula told all this, painfully but proud of how she and Harry overcame all the difficulties. Their love won out in the end. It's all thanks to Harry, she declared. He gave me the strength to overcome everything.....and with that she burst into bitter sobbing because she couldn't have children for him.
One morning - a knock on the door. I opened it and who was standing there but Zosia?. She seemed a bit embarrassed, perhaps because of the surprise written all over my face, and said in an apologetic tone: We're leaving Chelm soon, and going to Lodz. I've come to say 'Good-bye'
The two of us stood in the doorway, looking at each other, then Ula invited her in - in my confusion, I hadn't thought to do that - but she refused, saying that she didn't have time. They were leaving very shortly. I walked with her to accompany her back and wanted to tell her now, in the few moments I had left in her company, so many things - everything that overflowed in my heart, all that I wished for and planned to tell her in the weeks we had spent together and had never got around to saying - but for some reason the words got lost and from the multitude of things on the tip of my tongue, I was unable to utter one, single sentence.
We reached the gates of the courtyard to the Komitet . Zosia stretched out her hand. I held it, trying not to let her go for another moment, and another moment, finally saying:
Zosia, I'm coming to Lodz myself, soon, to live - and we can go on seeing each other.She brought her face close to mine to kiss me, or to receive a kiss, but I was unprepared for it and by the time the idea registered in my brain it was too late and she had turned on her heel and disappeared inside the house.
All day I was angry with myself and couldn't forgive myself for my silly behaviour in not being able to say a word to her, at not giving her a farewell kiss and that I had certainly made her think, without doubt, that I was a bit stupid. And in truth - I had been stupid.
Harry returned from Lodz with good news. He had got his parents' home back, a big house, three-storied, at No.8, Polodniowa Street. He had also got a job as manager in the factory that had belonged to his parents. Until late that night, Harry tried to persuade Jurziek and myself to drop everything and come immediately, in the morning, with him and Ula to Lodz. Jurziek promised that we would come soon and perhaps even settle there. Harry and Ula tried to take at least me with them, and to tell the truth I wasn't against the idea, except that I didn't want to leave Jurziek on his own, afraid that, in the end, he wouldn't follow after me to Lodz, and I'd lose him.
Only after Harry and Ula had left did we really appreciate to the full, just how much they had done for us. How pleasant it had been to return home and to feel that there was someone there to care for us, that everything was arranged and tidy and the cleanliness shone in every corner, the orderly meals and the family atmosphere. Now we returned to our bad habits, the house began to deteriorate and to become again, quite quickly, a way-station for temporary visitors.
We both missed Harry and Ula and they wrote telling us that everything was ready and waiting and they expected us every day. Your beds are ready and waiting for the sheets. And after a short time, we packed our few things, and left Chelm for Lodz. Two other fellows joined us for the journey. For the price of a bottle of vodka, we got a lift in a military vehicle as far as Lublin, where we went to the railway station. The station was bursting with people and we were told that people are waiting for days until they were lucky enough to get on a train; the acquisition of a ticket was conditional on possession of a travel pass from the military authorities. We had neither pass, nor ticket, but that didn't stop our resourceful Jurziek. Get behind me and keep close, he ordered, everything will be all right.
With that he began to force a way through the crowds in the waiting hall, with us tailing close behind. Time after time, he cried out, Excuse me! Excuse me! Make way, please! and continued to cross the sea of humanity. People automatically and quickly moved to one side, making a pathway for us - and Jurziek made his way along it, full of confidence, with us still close behind him, hearing him shout repeatedly: Excuse me! Excuse me!
The ticket inspector, standing near the gate to the platform, looked at us in astonishment as we moved on past him, through the gate without stopping, until we were already on the platform, next to the carriages, before it dawned on him to ask us for our tickets. The train, partly carriages for passengers and partly wagons for goods, were already full to overflowing with passengers, while hundreds more still strove to force themselves into the carriages. On the spur of the moment, Jurziek decided to be a crippled war-casualty. He began to hop on one leg and to drag the second behind him and in this way succeeded in clearing a path while we were pushed after him by the crowd closing in behind. We found ourselves more-or-less pushed on to one of the goods-wagons. Once on, we discovered that the crush was only at the entrance, for inside there was room for people to sit comfortably on the floor. Jurziek suddenly cried out in pain and every one looked at him. We explained to the people that he was a war casualty, apparently just injured again in his bad leg. Someone near at hand supposed that maybe it was he who had unintentionally hurt the cripple and begged his pardon and declaring aggressively in a loud voice: Make room for the cripple! People moved to one side and made quite a large area available in the centre of the wagon. We sat Jurziek down and sat ourselves round him.
During that period there was no such thing as a time-table. Nobody knew when the trains would leave or when they would arrive at their destinations. All military trains had right of way and precedence. Our train was shunted to a siding, and there we waited for hours, until a track became available. Jurziek quickly made contact with the people around us. He took a bottle of vodka out of his knapsack and offered our close neighbours a drink. Others seeing him, did likewise - taking out bottles and sausages, and everyone was eating and drinking and telling stories and jokes until the long, difficult boring journey, became a merry party. Next to us, sat a woman of about thirty-something taking an active part in the merry-making and quickly making friends with Jurziek. When I woke up before dawn I saw them lying close together in each others' arms. With morning, the inspector came to check the tickets. When he came nearer to us, Jurziek started shouting in pain again, cursing and complaining to the inspector that he had hurt his leg. The people in the took Jurziek's part and added the weight of their voices. The inspector became confused by the commotion, offered profuse apologies to Jurziek and made off as quickly as he could. When we got to Lodz, we parted warmly from our travelling companions, went out of the station and seeing a tram, began running towards it. Jurziek forgot that he was supposed to be a cripple and he too ran. I saw one of our new friends watch him and cross himself saying:
Oh God! It's a miracle! Our cripple is running like a healthy man.Again I was overwhelmed with admiration for the resourcefulness of Jurziek and wondered to myself where he found the talents for overcoming all these difficulties and obstacles; to cope successfully with every situation, to make friends with everyone and be liked by them. The man turned a difficult tedious journey, in an uncomfortable goods-wagon to an unforgettable experience for everyone, such that the time passed unnoticed and quickly. I was simply not made of the same clay as he. I would have made that journey without uttering a syllable. Nevertheless, in spite of my intense admiration for him, I didn't want to live in his shadow. I wanted to live my life, my way - and in my heart I had already separated from him.
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