Autumn 1944 - Winter 1944
Translated by Selwyn Rose
We walked for a few kilometres until we reached the road to Chelm - the road from which, during our night walks we had heard the noise of German transport. Now, we could stand quietly and watch from close-up, at Russian traffic moving up and down the road. Jurziek pulled out a bottle of vodka and waved it at the passing vehicles and within seconds a loaded truck pulled up. Jurziek let Mannik sit with the driver, while we climbed up behind and found places to sit among the various goods.
The suburbs of Chelm resembled very much the suburbs of Lodz - crowded smallholdings, workshops and a few factories - for the moment it seemed as though I had returned home after a long journey. We reached the city centre very quickly. The truck stopped and we climbed down into a quiet street, in which only very few people could be seen. I felt a strange fear. The town was totally different from what I had imagined it to be; it didn't resemble other Jewish towns that I knew, either.
The three of us walked down the street, and everyone who passed by stared at us as though we were some kind of strange creatures, perhaps because of our odd clothing and appearance, perhaps because we were Jews, who, after all, had not been seen walking freely in the streets of Chelm these many years. Although Jurziek and Mannik didn't look like Jews, there was no mistaking me and everyone wondered, surely, from whence came a Jew? In any case, I had the feeling that from every window, from every opening, people were staring at me, until I felt that I wanted to escape back to the forest, to the fields, to Janka and Jula.
When we arrived at the house where the fifteen Jews were staying, they all came out into the yard to welcome us. They already knew Jurziek and Mannik, and when they saw me asked: Is that the lad from Sobibor? and fell upon me with questions - perhaps you knew my relatives? perhaps some of them are alive, somewhere? Grief fell upon them heavily on hearing my replies, but it was good to be among Jews and to hear Yiddish being spoken freely, around me. The courtyard and the house brought back memories of the courtyard and house in the Warsaw ghetto, although there was no physical resemblance between the two places at all. Jurziek's aunt, who had hidden in a cellar for two years, in a farmer's house, had not seen the light of day throughout the whole period, and now found it difficult to tolerate the light; her eyes were half-closed the whole time. Both she and her husband were emaciated, their eyes shrunken into the orbs, bent almost double and walking with a strange gait. The woman, who had a naturally smiling face greeted me warmly and decided that I belong to her family and will live in their apartment. Jurziek gave me some money and sent me to buy some cigarettes. The gate to the courtyard was open. There was no German guard there. I was a free man, there was nothing for me to fear, but for all that I didn't want very much to go out into the street and when I did so I again felt that all eyes were staring at me. I entered the local grocery store. The women there looked at me with amazement. The shop-keeper fixed me with his stare and asked:
Pan jest Zhydem? -Are you a Jew? - but it wasn't a question; it was as if the shopkeeper had said 'I know that you're a Jew, but how is it that you're still alive?' They all looked at me and waited for my reply.
Jestem Zhydem -I'm a Jew I said, and one of the women said victoriously:
I said straight away that he was a Jew, I knew it!
The shopkeeper called his wife from the shop-parlour, saying:
We've got a guest. A live Jew! Then asking me: How did you manage to stay alive?
One of the women said she had heard that in Chelm fifteen Jews had remained alive. I let my gaze rest on the people in the shop, without wavering and I felt that I had confused them or embarrassed them. When I left there I had the feeling that by standing up to them, face-to-face I had won something. I returned to the house from the shop with sure strides. I felt as if I wanted to shout: I won the war! I stayed alive and I'm afraid of no one!
Semen came and told us that on the following day he would be joining his unit. He could do it even earlier, but he felt a deep need to see us first. In vain we pleaded with him not to re-enlist, at least not now. But he was adamant. Semen was like a brother to me. For ten months we had been close together, like Siamese twins. At critical moments, we understood each other's thoughts and feelings as if they were our own. Now I didn't want to lose him. Everyone who had left me up until now had never returned. I was terribly afraid we would never see each other again.
That same day a young couple arrived at the house - a boy and a girl. Both of them looked like typical 'Aryans'. Never would I suspect either of them as being Jews. The youth - about my age, Janek by name, was very thin with a sharp, turned-up nose and green eyes set deeply in his head, well-dressed, with a perpetual smile on his face. The girl, Wanda, two years younger than I, was a little plump, round-headed like a ball, blue-eyed with a tiny nose that almost didn't protrude from her face. Her flaxen hair fell to her shoulders, from both sides of her head. Wanda was dressed in tatters and seemed uncared-for in the extreme. Everyone went outside to see the new arrivals, and only after they began to tell their story in halting Yiddish, were we convinced that they were really Jews.
Thanks to their clearly Aryan looks they had both managed to avoid death. They had learned to act like Poles in everything - all the Catholic prayers they knew by heart. They had wandered from place to place until they had managed to find hiding places with some farmers - and by chance, in the same village. They would meet each other in the fields, when they took the herds out to pasture. The one didn't know that the other was Jewish, and they both pretended to be Christians until one day, Wanda ran after a cow which had strayed from the herd, tripped and hurt her leg. When she cried out in pain, Janek ran to her and when he saw the blood flowing from the wound cried out instinctively, in Yiddish: Oi Gottenu - Oh, God! The girl was surprised to hear Yiddish spoken by a Pole and asked him where he had heard that language and Janek asked her from where did she know to ask questions in Yiddish. Wanda replied that they used to have some neighbours who were Jews and that she had managed to learn a few words. But from that moment, each suspected that the other was, in fact, Jewish. Both of them found inaccuracies in the other's story and by a process of 'investigation', while maintaining the pretence of being Christians, at the end of an hour, admitted to each other that they were Jewish. From that moment, they were able to cope more easily with their surroundings and the problems it presented them with, for they could now help one another.
Wanda had a very hard time in the farm where she was staying. The farmer exploited her from sunrise to sunset, with no let-up and now she looked very run-down and mistreated. Jurziek's aunt took her in hand and arranged a place for her to sleep in the same room as myself.
Janek had joined the Krayova Army, the right-wing Polish partisans' organization, which also hated the Jews. The organization didn't accept Jews in its ranks and more than once its members had been known to kill Jews, when they found them in the forests. Janek joined them simply because the farmer, in whose house he had found shelter, was himself a member. Because he was above average intelligence, quick and unusually daring he was an excellent fighter and was exceptionally good at stealing arms and ammunition from the Germans. The partisans loved him and even his host treated him with respect.
One day, the Germans caught him trying to steal ammunition from a tank and placed him under heavy guard. When the partisan command got to hear that Janek had been caught and that on the following day, he would be taken for questioning by the Gestapo, they became afraid that the Gestapo may manage to make him talk and he would give away all the names of the local underground, so they organized a night attack on the German post, intending either to free him or kill him, one way or the other to make sure that he didn't open his mouth to the wrong people. In the attack, several Germans were killed as well as a few partisans. Janek himself managed to escape and he became a local hero. Not one of the partisans dreamed for a moment, that he had rescued a Jewish lad.
In the evening, we all gathered together. We were twenty-three. We had the feeling that we were the only survivors from among thousands of Jews from Chelm and the surroundings. At the same time, we hoped that in the coming days, more and more survivors would turn up, just as Janek and Wanda had. The fact that we were a large group raised our spirits. Jurziek's aunt served us with soup which brought up memories of long ago, from home. We ate and drank vodka. We four - Jurziek, Mannik, Semen and myself - sat next to one another. We knew that the following morning we would be parting from Semen, but in the meantime, we felt good that we were all sitting together. Slowly we all warmed up and relaxed and began to tell each other all that had befallen us during the German conquest.
The Soviet army continued to strike at the Germans and drive them westwards as far as Warsaw. The Russians conquered east Warsaw - the area of the city known as Praga - and stopped on the banks of the Vistula. In Chelm, I didn't feel as if the war was still going on except for the few occasions, when German aircraft broke through, mainly at night, to bomb sensitive targets. People went down to the shelters, but I like to stay up top watching and following after the big searchlights, hunting through the sky for the German aircraft and the tracer shells that the anti-aircraft guns shot at them.
The first time I saw a group of German soldiers, prisoners-of-war, being marched along the street, I completely lost control and ran in among the ranks and started hitting them with all my strength. One of them I kicked and he started crying. Two Russian soldiers came after me shouting and quickly threw me out of the middle, back onto the pavement. But the onlookers at the roadside gave me a round of applause. Suddenly I, myself, became embarrassed and confused by what I had done and quickly hurried away from there.
During the following day, a few more Jews from partisan units and hiding-places joined our ranks. Among them were some who looked like Poles and with false documents, had managed to live like Poles - most of them were women, but there were a few men among them, who had hidden their Jewishness and had even undergone complicated operations in order not to be identified as Jews.
Every Jew who came to us in Chelm was received like a conquering hero who had defeated the Germans and remained alive.. Every one increased the number of survivors significantly but we were, after all was said and done just a few sad remnants of an entire People. In time, there began to arrive Jews from over the east side of the River Bug. These were mostly people from various partisan units. Some of them stayed with us in Chelm, some of them continued on to Lublin. The house filled up until there was no more room. People were now sleeping in every available corner and on the floor. Others found shelter in neighbouring houses but the common meeting place was 'our' house which was called the Komitet.
Jews who chanced into Chelm, especially Jews in the Polish and Russian armies, came every day, to seek their relatives, to meet with Jews and to hear from their own mouths what had happened. The courtyard was humming with people and activity all day long and every evening we would all meet together, telling our own stories and listening. to other's. There was always someone who had brought vodka and something to eat and the stories ran on, one after the other, every story as if born out of the world of imagination - and not one of the tellers or the hearers tired of listening to them.
Jurziek lost no time. With all his energy he tackled the world of commerce - buying and selling everything and anything that came along; he bought from the soldiers and sold to the civilians, bought from the farmers and sold to the soldiers. He brought geese and chickens home and filled the house with goodies. His pockets bulged with money and we ate and drank until we could eat and drink no more. Mannik, who didn't want to live at his younger brother's expense and didn't know how to manage himself in business, quickly volunteered for the Polish army, before Jurziek managed to persuade him not to do so. I added my attempts to those of Jurziek but also without success.
I hated commerce, which was all based on bartering in one form or another but I had to find some way to make a living and earn my keep. I found out which soldiers were in need of money and prepared to sell everything they had if only they could get some vodka. I would wait for them on the corner, before they got to the market, and buy their clothes from them. Sometimes they offered me their new boots off their feet, and I'd buy them and get them old ones in replacement, so that they wouldn't return barefooted to camp.
I had to be very careful of the Russian Military Police. Once they had nearly caught me after a chase and I only just managed to give them the slip. One day the Russian Military Police came the courtyard of the Komitet looking for me and bringing with them the soldier from whom I had bought a new pair of boots. but I had been warned and didn't sleep at the house for a couple of nights. The goods I dealt in I gave to Jurziek - he was much better than I at bargaining. But everything I did was as nothing compared to Jurziek's achievements - he was in contact with different suppliers and with all the merchants in town, and at a time when others didn't have two ha'pennies to rub together, the two of us were rolling in money; we ate and drank like kings and shared with whoever happened by. For breakfast we might eat an omelette made of twenty eggs, a half-kilogram sausage, washed down with a couple of glasses of vodka. For lunch we could finish off a large roast goose and at night we would continue to drink and eat. Surprisingly we didn't explode and even more surprisingly we didn't become ill.
After Semen's and Mannik's enlistment to the army, the connection between Jurziek and myself became somewhat stronger. We both felt that what the two of us had together, was all that we had left in the world; we thought then, that we would stay together all our lives. We lived as if to hold on to each other with all our strength, although, somewhere deep inside me a hidden force was distancing me from Jurziek.
Without me noticing it I became a popular figure among those who came to the Komitet - apparently because of my experiences, about which I would tell at our nightly meetings, for long hours into the night. I acquired many friends - there was never an event in which I didn't take part, a bottle of vodka was never opened that I wasn't invited to take a drink from. I made special friends with Janek, who quickly became my best friend. Behind the hard exterior camouflage, was hiding a different Janek - one with a gentle, sensitive soul. We both loved to 'get lost' together and go wandering around the town, go together to the cinema and afterwards to be alone together and talk. Our histories, the stories of our families, the telling of which we shared mutually, we kept between us as a secret. In our hearts we knew that there wasn't the slightest chance of finding any members of our families alive, but nevertheless, we kept alive that spark of hope that a miracle would occur. Janek would tell me of his family and describe his father to me in minute detail - each detail emphasized as if of inestimable importance - and while he spoke tears would appear in the corners of his eyes and he would fall silent, then say:
What the hell! Why am I telling you all this? Let's go and find something to drink.One day, the Russian-Jewish author, Ilya Ehrenburg, appeared in Chelm on a visit. He was accompanied by journalists of the Soviet government's daily newspaper Izvestia. The team had gone out on assignment to collect evidence of Nazi war crimes and atrocities. I was not in the Komitet when they arrived and people came looking for me. The name Ilya Ehrenburg was unknown to me. I was only told that some important people wanted to interview me. When I entered the room, there was already a gathering of the writer, some journalists, a photographer and some of the people of the Komitet.
I was introduced by someone: This is the lad from Sobibor, and Ilya Ehrenburg turned to me in Yiddish, asking me to tell him about Sobibor. I wanted to tell him everything - I sensed that this was an opportunity to tell the whole world the terrors of Sobibor - but for some reason we didn't seem to hit it off together. Perhaps I had become used to my listeners sitting tensely, absorbing every word, without interrupting me, while he, Ilya Ehrenburg, kept on interrupting the flow of my narrative again and again with irrelevant questions and comments, like: That's not important; That I already know, and so on. I got the impression that the writer didn't really want to hear my story at all; that it was his questions were more important, and it interfered with my concentration and gave me the feeling that I wasn't giving a satisfactory, coherent picture of events. When I had finished, Ehrenburg thanked me and said that the things that I had related were most important, and that the world should know what the Nazis had done, although I came out of the meeting feeling that I had failed, that I hadn't succeeded in informing the world what I had experienced in the Nazi extermination camp.*
Some time later an entertainment group, a choir, from the second Byelorussian front came to visit Chelm The whole group, all of them, were officers, all in smart, well-pressed uniforms.
*Ten years later, a friend of mine from Sobibor, Meir Suess, came across a booklet in Yiddish, in a second-hand book shop in Tel-Aviv, entitled 'Mörderer von Volk' - ''Murderers of a Nation' -which had been published in Moscow, in 1945. It contained the evidence collected by Ilya Ehrenburg during that same journey. It opened with an article bearing my name reporting the information I had given him.
There were more than a hundred members. Most of them, especially the conductor of the orchestra, were Jewish, and they often came to visit the Komitet. I made friends with them very quickly.
One day a few of the members of the group came to us gripped by some powerful emotion, and showed me a copy of Izvestia, which carried on its front page the evidence I had given to Ilya Ehrenburg, and in the centre a picture of me. They told me it was a great honour to appear in Izvestia especially on the front page. The rumour spread quickly and people poured into the courtyard, pushing and shoving, trying to see the ...picture of Bolek in the paper. One of my friends from the military choir read aloud the article to everyone there and the more I listened, the more I felt that they were things that I hadn't said.....
The members of the choir insisted on my accompanying them to their hostel, where they arranged a warm welcome for me. They swarmed round me, shaking my hand and kissing me, making me something of a hero. The old man, who was the conductor of the orchestra, approached me shook me warmly by the hand and presented me with two complimentary tickets for the opening night. Everyone in the Komitet was jealous, the more so because it was opening night - and in the third row!
I was supposed to have gone to the concert with Jurziek but he was out of town on one of his business ventures and hadn't returned. There was a very friendly, open and beautiful girl living in the Komitet. Her real name was Raya, but everyone called her Partisan, because she had arrived with a group of partisans who had been operating on the east side of the River Bug. She usually wore Russian army clothes, which she had received as gifts from her many friends. She was a little older than I - about eighteen or nineteen and I had never dared to approach her. Her face was very smooth and she had big eyes. Her long, flowing hair, which hung down on both sides of her face, and her generous bosom had their effect on me and I couldn't take my eyes off her. Now that I had the two tickets in my hand, I asked her if she would like to come with me to the concert and she gladly accepted. We got to the municipal theatre early - the crowd had only just begun to arrive in front of the building - and telling her to wait a moment I went into a nearby courtyard to urinate.
A dog, which had been chained up there, suddenly jumped out at me and before I could move out of his way, had fastened his teeth on my leg. I leapt backwards leaving half a trouser leg in his jaws. I was stunned. The girl was waiting for me, the show was about to begin - how on earth could I appear among all those people like this? I ran like mad back to the Komitet - luckily no one saw me on the way and to my good fortune, I found somebody's trousers in one of the rooms, put them on and ran back to the theatre just as people were about to go in to the auditorium but Raya the Partisan looked at me in anger and asked: Where on earth have you been? I managed to concoct some story about having just met an acquaintance who had to be conducted urgently to the Komitet. Luckily there was no time to discuss it further and we went into the theatre.
A girl-soldier with a serious expression on her face was collecting tickets. She examined our tickets, looked us up and down and then, before conducting us to our seats, again looked carefully at the tickets and again looked us up and down, from head to foot. The auditorium was full to overflowing, mainly with Russian and Polish officers, but there were some civilians, together with their women, all of them dressed for the evening. Perfume filled the air. In the first rows sat all the special guests - senior army officers and city dignitaries - and among them all Raya the Partisan and myself.
When we sat down, I felt the pain in my leg and the blood flowing from the wound, down into my boot, but it was not that which worried me. I was considering to myself the way fate was playing with me - I had this wonderfully unique opportunity, at last, to go out with Raya to a concert, to be in her company for the whole evening, just the two of us, and - perhaps - after the concert we would go for a stroll and chat and who-knows-what-else - and it had all gone wrong: She was angry with me and I was sure she wouldn't forgive me for leaving her alone outside the theatre. I sat there silently, as she did, knowing that any and every word that I uttered would only anger her even more.
On to the stage, in front of the curtain, strode a Russian officer and a spotlight settled on his face. Silence fell on the auditorium. The officer said a few words of welcome and introduced the choir, dancers and conductor to a round of applause. The curtain rose, and arranged on the stage was the orchestra and the choir, row upon row, as straight as rulers, all of them in identical Russian officers' uniform, beautifully pressed - the uniforms, caps boots and belts all identical and perfectly aligned, like so many peas in a pod. I knew most of them from close up, by sight, but there on the stage, all of them so very alike, I had difficulty recognizing and identifying them. The conductor took his place and again there was a round of applause, but he immediately raised his baton and the orchestra began to play a sad melody. The choir, which until now had stood silent and unmoving, like so many statues, began singing very quietly, almost in a whisper, as if it were coming from far away, but soon it began to swell, rather like a storm coming closer, until it reached a tremendous, heart-stopping crescendo. The conductor led the choir gently, as if with a magician's wand in his hand, producing from the choir the most wonderful singing. For a whole hour, non-stop, the choir sang songs of war, of heroism, folk-songs and songs of love and longing. I felt as if I were bathed and enveloped in a warm sea of beautiful music such as I had never heard in my life before. When I stole a glance at Raya, I could see that the anger had left her face and when our glances met she smiled at me. At the end of the first part of the concert, an interval was announced and people stood up and went outside. I didn't feel that I wanted to go out. I was comfortable where I was, the sounds of the choir and the orchestra still echoing in my mind; it was good to be sitting near Raya, feeling her body next to mine. I was happy. I didn't want to change a thing. Suddenly, I again felt pain in my leg. The incident of the dog now seemed like something in the past and I fold Raya about it and she burst out laughing making me laugh with her.
The second half of the programme was mainly folk-dances, which were performed with great precision, and sketches poking fun at the Germans; but what had caught me was the choir which, with its enchanting singing; had granted me a totally new experience, one that I had previously not known, and opened up for me a new horizons in the musical world.
For quite some time now Jurziek and I had wanted to bring Janka and Jula to town, to Chelm, to spend some time together, even to get an apartment for them and help them to settle down. Eventually, we managed to bring them for a visit. Both of them, big Janka and the peppery-tongued Jula acted very shyly when they arrived, like little girls. We brought them to the Komitet but the moment we set foot in the courtyard, people gathered round to see who had arrived. Someone blurted out: Where on earth did you find those two 'monkeys'? We explained to the crowd gathered round that these were the two women who had hidden us in their cabin and had saved our lives. People shook hands with them but I heard many asides making fun of us. The two women didn't feel comfortable in this atmosphere, so Jurziek and I took them out for the night to town, bought them presents, went for a meal to a restaurant, to a cinema to see a film, and so on. In the evening, we went back to our apartment where some Russian soldiers had gathered for a visit, bringing with them some vodka. The two women began drinking rather too much and Jula started to sing some bawdy songs, being aided and abetted by the soldiers. Jula drew me to her, hugged me and then, kissing me, said in a loud voice: Bolek, tonight I'm going to sleep with you! Everyone burst out laughing, while I didn't know where to hide my face for shame and embarrassment. The evening wore on and I was overcome with increasing anxiety as to how I good get out of going to bed with Jula.
Jurziek and Janka disappeared to somewhere. The soldiers continued to drink and to 'irrigate' Jula as well, while I wondered to myself as to what the night would bring forth. Suddenly, Raya came up to me and said:
I can see that you're not looking forward very much to sleeping with that old crone. So come and sleep with me in the attic. I'm afraid of sleeping there alone.Raya's offer struck me like a blow. Raya had been sleeping, up till now, with a Russian soldier who was serving in town and I thought of them as a couple. I had noticed in the last day or two, they had seemed to be angry with one another, and now I understood that because of this she wanted to sleep with me. But I didn't know how to go to bed with a woman. I didn't know how to behave, how to start or how to continue. The mere thought of the two of us lying together caused such a strong reaction in me that I could hear my heart pounding. A great fear fell upon me that she would laugh at me, but at the same time I couldn't refuse the offer from this beautiful girl that I admired so much.
Don't be afraid, Bolek, she said, as if reading my thoughts, I won't do anything to you, and it's only for tonight, because tomorrow, I'm leaving this place.Jurziek's uncle and aunt had gone to the other room to sleep. The party was continuing in the front room and I was pleased to see that Jula was enjoying herself, surrounded by soldiers. I was afraid that if I took some blankets, Jula would discover that I was going to sleep somewhere else and even inform everyone that I was going to bed with Raya, but nobody noticed us. We both lay down on the blanket, close to each other but not touching. Raya told me that the soldier who had been sleeping with her was a bastard; she didn't want to see him again, and that was why she was leaving - she intended going to Lublin in the morning. And now, we'll sleep, she said and turned on her side, with her back to me. I don't know how long I lay there without moving, my thoughts scourging my body, with Raya lying relaxed and sleeping by my side. The summer was coming to an end. The nights were now cool and the chill penetrated the attic. With a quick movement, Raya suddenly moved closer to me, fitting her body into mine, while a sweet tremor of excitement flooded my whole body. Without disturbing her, I stretched out my hand to cover her with the blanket and my hand touched her hip in its search for a hold on the blanket. As if on its own accord it continued to grope until it rested on her breast. I held her gently more closely, kissed her back through her shirt and fell happily asleep.
I woke up late in the morning and Raya was no longer next to me. I recalled the events of last night and feelings of shame flooded me. I was angry with myself. It was possible that Raya had already left and what had been would remain a secret between us but I felt a strong urge to see her before she disappeared.
During the morning Jurziek and I accompanied Janka and Jula on the start of their journey home. When we parted, we promised them that we would visit them and spend a day or two with them. Afterwards I accompanied Raya to the railway station. I carried her small suitcase, made of ply-wood, which was light enough to suggest that it was half empty. Raya wore a Soviet army uniform and an army coat was slung over her arm. We walked without exchanging a word. Raya, who in my eyes was a real thoroughbred partisan, full of self-confidence, knowing no fear of anything or anyone, suddenly seemed like a frightened little girl, whose parents had abandoned her and she didn't know her way home. An army train came into the station. Raya hugged me, gave me a big kiss - jumped on an open wagon loaded with cannons. Russian soldiers stretched out their hands in assistance and pulled her up.
The war was not yet over. The Nazi monster was taking fatal blows everywhere. In the west, the allies were fighting on Italian and French soil, forcing a retreat on the 'invincible' German army, back into Germany. Germany was being bombed incessantly, night and day and her cities turned into mounds of rubble and ruins. On the eastern front the Russian army stood along the whole length of the Vistula preparing for a mighty offence whose target was Berlin. But Hitler, like an injured animal, didn't give up. He concentrated his remaining forces, in order to keep on fighting. The Third Reich, which was supposed to exist for a thousand years, was on the brink of collapse, but still the Germans continued with their acts of cruel oppression and extermination of the Jewish people. Day after day the trains, loaded with Jews travelled to Auschwitz and other extermination camps.
While the Soviet army was still on the far banks of the Vistula dividing Warsaw, the Polish underground began an uprising in the city on the orders of the Polish National Leadership, in exile, in London, in order to guarantee Poland's political rights at the end of the war. The Poles hoped that the Russians would come to their help, but the Russians, who for their own political motives, had no interest in an independent Poland, with a share in the victory over Germany, lifted not a finger to help. As it was during the ghetto uprising, when the Polish underground didn't come to the aid of the Jews, neither with arms nor with men - with the Poles just standing to one side and watching the destruction of the remainder of the Jews in the ghetto - so stood the Russians now, and watched passively as the Germans put down Polish resistance.
At that same time, while the Polish uprising was at its height, a group of us went to Warsaw - a Jewish officer in the Polish army, a Russian officer serving in the Polish army (in the Polish army, raised by the Russians, there were many Russian officers serving, in Polish uniforms), Jurziek, a fellow named Grischa, and myself. It was a business trip - the two Russians took us with them in order to sell us goods, which they had stored in the Praga quarter of east Warsaw.
The closer we got to Warsaw, the more army units there were in sight. Again and again we were stopped and had our documents checked. We got to Praga in the afternoon hours. Explosions could be heard from the western sectors of the city - German aircraft were targeting resistance locations. Bursts of machine-gun-fire could be heard in various directions. The officers led us to an old, four-storied house - similar to our house at One Pszebieg Street. We went upstairs by a twisting staircase and along a long, dark corridor. The officer knocked on a door. For a moment I imagine to myself that my grandmother would open the door...three young women welcomed us. The two officers kissed them. In the house everything reminded me of my own home in every detail - the doors, the windows, the furniture.........only the Polish girls looked out of place to me, as if I'd been taken back in time a couple of years. I went to the window and looked towards the western part of the city - 'my' - side, and the Jewish officer asked me: Are you from Warsaw? Come, I'll take you to a place where you can see the whole city.
The officer went down to the street and led me through several streets, to an abandoned house, where we went up to the top floor, into an apartment whose door was open, and onto the verandah. The Vistula flowed in front of me, broad and stately and over the other side the city was spread before me. It took me a while to get my bearings and identify a few things - the Fortress, and beyond it a large devastated area, apparently the ghetto and there, among the ruins, stood my house, One Pszebieg Street. A stream of memories flooded me with clear, highly detailed pictures. I see myself walking in the public garden next to the Fortress, with my father, a policeman approaches us and tells my father to clear off quickly, if he doesn't want to land in a lot of trouble; in the streets we see policemen running after some men and beating another young man; we get further away from there, quickly, and my father explains to me that the police are chasing communists who are meeting in the garden; now we are in Bonifraterska Street, teeming with people, the small crowded shops, crammed next to each other, the street full of peddlars, the smell of hot sausages and beigels wafts into my nostrils, I come closer to Pszebieg street, feeling the wind whipping into my face - when I used to walk with my grandfather from the synagogue, in the evenings, I used to be afraid that the wind would lift me up and blow me away and I'd hang on to his hand with all my strength; and now I'm in the quiet, small street, where almost no one passes by, I hear the noise of the machines in the small copper workshop, I smell the aroma coming from the bakehouse where the biscuits are made in the cellar, I move into our courtyard - a hot summer day, windows are open wide, I can hear a woman singing, the humming of sewing machines, the milkmaid passing through with a milk-urn, her white cat following along at her heels, gossips, beggars, musicians, the different itinerant tradesmen - all, all of them known to me. Thus, I stood at the window, losing myself ever more deeply in memories of the past, swamped with the pictures appearing before me, drawing me like a magnet to the days that were, and are no more......I see my grandmother, dressed for festivals, with her funny hat, walking to the synagogue, my grandfather adjusting the clock on the wall, my mother and father, my sister Devorah, my brothers Mottel and little Yankeleh, sitting Friday evening at the table, and again I see the ghetto, the crowded streets, the skeletons of people strewn here and there on the pavements; I hear children crying: We're hungry, give us something to eat!; I see people groping in the garbage in the courtyard and felt the hunger and the cold that spread through our house - I saw it all before me........................
My eyes were fixed on the devastation as if nailed there - was there really nothing left? From all that multitude not a man survived? Not a soul? From my whole family only I remain? How did it happen that they are all dead and I'm alive? How did they die? From hunger in the ghetto? Or in Treblinka, where most of the Warsaw ghetto was taken and exterminated? Did my mother and Yankeleh walk together to the gas-chamber, or were they separated from each other and each went alone to his fate? My sister Devorah certainly didn't let them take her to Treblinka.........perhaps she took part in the uprising? She was always the rebel, a member of 'The Young Guard' - perhaps she was still alive? By what right am I still alive, while they all died? I was attacked by an overwhelming feeling of shame that I was alive, that I didn't share their fate with them - what point was there to being alive on one's own, without one's loved ones? What was left for me to seek in this strange world? I was convinced, that, in the end, I, too wouldn't live; I must get killed, somehow; certainly I cannot alone remain alive.
We returned to the women. Jurziek examined and sorted a pile of dresses, coats and other articles of clothing and I helped by packing it all up. Jurziek said that he had bought a large amount of goods and that if we managed successfully to get it all to Chelm we'd make a large profit. In the evening there was a curfew. There was no electricity. We ate supper round a candle-lit table and thanks to the officers there was no lack of vodka or good food. We toasted the Russian army, the Polish army, Stalin - and the bottles emptied themselves one by one. There was a wind-up gramophone in the room with a large ear-trumpet and two records of romantic Polish songs from before the war and a Russian record brought, presumably, by the Russian officer. We continued with toasts to the women and to each of us individually; the gramophone played, everyone joked around and laughed - and I drank too much, while my thoughts, in spirit, wandered round the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto. Suddenly, one of the two women turned to me and said:
You know, you look completely Jewish.There was a sudden deafening silence. But I immediately said to her:
That's right - I am Jewish.The woman said, as if apologizing, Never mind. Then Jurziek opened his mouth and said to her:
You know, I'm also Jewish!Grischa, who looked typically Polish, reacted by declaring that he, too, was Jewish - and then the Jewish officer came in with his admission that he was Jewish. The women were embarrassed and confused. They didn't believe that we were all Jews and one of them said:
No, she said, You're joking. You don't even look Jewish.
You're just joking with us! You're not really Jews! even Pan Bolek isn't Jewish, he only looks like a Jew........The atmosphere became irretrievably ruined. We continued to drink, I, myself, knowing no limit. The Russian officer put the Russian record on the turntable. It was a sad Russian song about soldiers at the front and a nightingale. The song captured my heart and the Russian put it on time after time. The women went into the other room to sleep, the music acted like a lullaby on the others, as well, and they lay on the floor to sleep. Only the Russian officer and myself remained at the table, drinking and listening to the soldiers' song:
'Nightingale, nightingale, don't wake the men,The officer sat with eyes closed, the glass of vodka in his hand. I thought he had fallen asleep but every time the record got to the end, he stretched out his hand, lifted the arm and put it back to the beginning. I sat opposite him, listening to the song, my head spinning. Everything was going round, the table, the gramophone, the officer, every object in the room went up and down, at different speeds, and so did my thoughts from one thing to another, without any order, everything jumbled up in my head, and I felt as if I didn't exist at all. I came to myself with a sudden start, bathed in a cold sweat. I had dreamed that I was in Glowno, the village we had stayed in when we had escaped from Lodz - my mother my sister, Yankeleh and myself are sitting round a big table. The wagoner comes in and says: Go out to the wagon! and everyone takes their parcels and goes outside. I also get up and go outside but suddenly I see Oberscharf?hrer Wagner in the doorway and wonder to myself - How is it that I am again in their hands? I was already with them. I have to escape from him! I jump through the window and run through the open field. Vainly I search for some kind of cover behind which to hide. Suddenly I see a toilet, run inside and look through the cracks. I am in Sobibor. I know that my end is coming. I hear Wagner's footsteps. He gets to the toilet. He stands in the entrance, raging with anger, draws his pistol from its holster, points it at me and shoots...I sat up and looked around me. I didn't remember lying down on the floor. Next to me lay Jurziek and Grischa.
Let the soldiers rest,
For spring has come to the front,
But their eyes will know no sleep,
And not because of the guns,
Nor yet because of......'
What happened? Grischa asked.I was afraid to fall asleep, for fear that the dream would continue, but in fact I fell asleep quickly. The dream stayed with me all the way back from Warsaw to Chelm. Wagner gave me no rest. He had always wanted to kill me, and now he continued to hound me in my dreams.
Nothing, I replied, I was only dreaming.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
The Last of the Freibergs Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
This web page created by Max Heffler
Copyright © 1999-2018 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 20 May 2008 by MGH