Spring 1945 - Winter 1946
Translated by Selwyn Rose
The tram that came towards us was completely full. I couldn't move or see a thing. Only by the conductor calling out the names of the streets, did I know where we were. After a time a seat became vacant next to a window. I grabbed it and sat down, and looking out of the window began to identify the streets. When we turned into Piotrkowska Street, I began to recognize things. The tram carried on towards Plac Wolnosci - Freedom Square - which the Germans had called Hitler Circus. As we got closer to the Square, things became more and more familiar until I could identify every house. When the tram stopped at the Square, we got off.
My feet automatically stopped me in front of my grandfather's house. I looked around me. Everything was as it had been: the iron gate, the lamp-post in front of the house, the shops, the church on the corner of the street, the ringing of the tram's bell and the screeching of its wheels on the rails, as it negotiated the curve of the roundabout. All that was missing was the big statue of Kosciuszko, which the Germans had blown up during the first days of their occupation of the city. My eyes drifted upwards to the windows of my grandparents' apartment, and their images, and their son, my uncle Feivel sprang up before me. When had it been? Everything seemed so far away - What had happened to my grandfather and grandmother? How had they died? By hunger? Shooting? Choking to death in the gas-chambers? I'll never know, as I'll never know the fate of my mother, sister, brothers and all the rest of my family.
The place hadn't changed its appearance, but its personality was totally different. Everything was quieter and even though the shops were open, it was like a Sunday morning. I looked for Jewish faces among the passers-by and those who stood in the shop doorways. All of them were Aryan faces. I remembered how it was before the war - how it had been so varied - men and women in modern dress, Jews dressed in caftans and on their heads round small-peaked caps, Polish children going to church, and Jewish children. The street was humming with people all hours of the day, everyone always in a hurry to get somewhere. Now, it seemed as if even the smell of the street was different. Suddenly everything was strange to me, as if I had never been here in my life - and again the thought crossed my mind that I belong to those who had never returned. Why was it decreed that I should come back here, and not die with all the others?
When Ula saw us in the doorway, she shouted out with joy and fell on us excitedly, kissing us and saying:
My children have returned to me! She led us the room she had prepared for us and we could see for ourselves that she had prepared it with love and thoughtfulness - two beds with coverlets, a wardrobe, chest-of-drawers, table and chairs, table-cloth, flowers...... When had she and Harry had time to do it all? Our room was more beautiful than theirs.
Ula quickly 'took command'. She decided that we were 'dirty', heated some water and sent us to clean up, took our shirts and underwear, and gave us others in exchange. Where had she obtained it all - did she really prepare it all for us? After we had spent some time alone and after the long tiresome journey to Lodz, it was wonderful to feel the hand of a woman looking after us and the homely atmosphere. Harry came at midday and again demonstrations of joy and pleasure. The first words out of his mouth were:
I told you that they'd come, didn't I?In the afternoon, tired out from the journey, clean and content, we lay down on our clean, fresh beds and slept until evening. In the evening, Harry took us to the cinema, where we saw a Russian war film, depicting the cruelty of the Germans, and a group of partisans who eventually win out over the enemy. I enjoyed the film very much and was surprised to hear the Poles in the audience laughing at the Russians. I got angry, because, after all was said and done, it had been the Russians who had liberated Poland from the Germans. The hate that the Poles felt towards Russia was strong and very deep, with its roots deep in the history of the two peoples.
At home, Harry lectured us on the possibilities before us. For me, he expressed the opinion that I could choose to learn one of the many professions, but it would be better if I first completed the general education that I had lost during the war years. He, himself would help me all he could and sit with me every evening to do so. He suggested that Jurziek should open his own shop but added that the two of us, in any case, would continue to live with them. The next day, Jurziek and I went out to wander around the town. It was a typical spring day; the sun came and went, and now and again a torrential downpour made everyone scurry for shelter in shop- and house-doorways. I wanted to walk to my own house but was I scared about confronting the past and I wasn't sure how I would react to it. Because of that, I decided to go there when I was alone, so I left the visit for another occasion. We wandered around somewhat aimlessly. All of a sudden, we heard a shout: Bolek! - Surely that was the voice of Semen? Was it a dream?
Before us stood a Russian soldier leaning on two crutches, his greatcoat open and underneath his army hospital pyjamas. Semen! we both shouted as one and fell on one another, the three of us standing there on the pavement, hugging each other, to the surprise of passers-by who stopped and watched the strange spectacle.
We went into a restaurant and ordered a vodka and something solid to eat. Our Semen had changed a lot. He was very lean, his shaven head made him look ugly and when he smiled, there was an obvious sadness behind the smile and it was possible to see he had recently undergone a severe experience. When he asked after Mannik, Jurziek burst out crying, and first I then Semen joined in - the three of us sat there drinking and crying. If only Mannik had been with us the meeting with Semen would have generated such unbounded joy; without him the reunion turned into one of deep misery.
Semen told us his story. On the first day of his re-enlistment, he was investigated for hours and told the Russian officers who were questioning him, how his whole company had fallen captive to the Germans, how he had been held in different prisoner-of-war camps, how he was sent, because he was a Jew, to be exterminated in Sobibor, except that the Germans there, chose about a hundred of them, he among them, to be workers. He told them about the camp and the revolt, life in the forest until the liberation. At the end of this first, initial investigation Semen was sent to prison together with Ukrainians who had served with the Germans and he, who had certainly tasted suffering in his life, told us that was the worst time of his life - he was accused of collaboration with the Nazis and imprisoned in the company of Ukrainian murderers.
His investigation continued for a few days and at the end he was put up for a quick field-trial, and sentenced to twenty years imprisonment, but on the spot his sentence was changed to one-month's service in a Punishment Battalion.* Semen continued to tell us that in one of the attacks that his platoon mounted on a fortified German position, only he and one other soldier remained alive. Semen was an old soldier with battle experience and his luck held for him when he was injured in his last combat and removed to hospital, with the retreat of the Germans. He showed us his medals and said that - Everything's O.K. - the injury was only light and in the next day or two they'll take off the Plaster-of-Paris, and they're not sending me back to the Punishment Battalion. For the first time I was angry with the Russians who, until then, I had admired unequivocally. How could they behave towards Semen the way they had without him being guilty of anything? I had already experienced anti-Semitism among Russians, but I had always thought it marginal and incidental. Semen's experience indicated that there was something general and organized about it and that this wasn't an isolated incident. We continued to sit together in the restaurant, unaware of the passing hours. Semen's time for returning to the hospital came and went. He told us that after the removal of the plaster and the period of his convalescence settled, he would be sent to Russia for further treatment and leave, and we realized that, again, we would have to part from him - and who knew if this time would meet again, and when. We walked with him a fair way back towards the hospital but shortly before getting there he left us .....so as not to complicate matters he said. The following day, we met
*During the war, the Russians created Punishment Battalions, manned by prisoners who had been sentenced to life imprisonment or long-term sentences. On these battalions were laid the most difficult and dangerous of military objectives. Their chances of survival were known to be extremely slim. A few of these soldiers excelled in acts of great bravery and valour. Most of them fell victim to German fire immediately on entry into the battle arena.again, strolled around, along Piotrkowska Street and looked for somewhere to sit and drink something. Jurziek liked the idea of the 'Grand Hotel' and when I explained to him that the place was not for the likes of us but for the rich and famous, he said:
What, aren't we important people? and drew us through the heavy revolving door.The luxurious lobby of the hotel seemed empty at first glance and only after we became accustomed to the gloom could we see, here and there, people sitting at ease in heavy, leather armchairs. Complete silence reigned and our entry in heavy boots attracted the attention of those present and they all stared at us - especially the waiters and other members of the staff, all of whom were dressed in well-pressed, smart uniforms. They began to whisper among themselves at our appearance. We found an empty lounge-table and sat down in the armchairs around it. An elderly waiter approached us, welcomed us with a serious face and asked how he could serve us. Jurziek ordered a large bottle of vodka, an omelette made of twenty eggs, some sausage and asked if it was possible to get some ...good smoked meat. The waiter paid close attention to the order, stayed silent for a moment and then said:
You will pardon us, but we don't serve food here. If you wish, you can eat at lunch-time in the dining-room, when it opens in about an hour, but I would suggest that you go to a restaurant not far from here, where you can get whatever you want.Wait here, said Jurziek, getting up, I'll be right back. He went out of the hotel and I saw how the waiter was describing to his colleagues his experience at our table, and how they reacted with laughter. I knew that Jurziek was up to something, otherwise he wouldn't have asked us to wait here for him and, indeed, after a few more minutes he returned and put on the table a bottle of vodka, sausage and bread. It wasn't hard to surmise that this wasn't going to be ignored; there was no possibility that a group of strange people, like us, was going to turn the luxurious foyer of the 'Grand Hotel' - the most beautiful in Lodz, into a popular diner! Before the war, the waiters would have called the police and we would have been ejected unceremoniously onto the street, arrested and imprisoned with no more ado; now, just a few weeks after the end of the German occupation, and before it was clear what would be the norms fixed by the new administration, the hotel staff weren't too sure how to react to new situations.
And what can we get here? Jurziek asked the waiter.
Here you can get drinks - soft drinks as well, but I should tell you that our prices are very high.
Thank you, very much, said Jurziek, we don't need anything. The waiter moved away, satisfied that he had got rid of the strange group.
There was no doubt that Jurziek was looking for a fight, perhaps seeking by his behaviour, to protest to the world for continuing to show contentment in spite of, and after what had happened to the Jews, and thus to demonstrate that we were alive. All the members of the staff congregated at the reception desk, apparently debating what to do with us. Then Jurziek called for a waiter, and when one approached, ordered him to bring glasses. The waiter brought them on a tray, and laid them one by one on the table, without saying a word. When I said Thank you, he was most surprised, as if he were facing an enemy who had suddenly stretched out his hand in peace.
We sat in the comfortable chairs, drinking. In the company of Jurziek and Semen, I felt secure. I got the impression that the staff had come to terms with the situation and had decided to leave us in peace, but after a few swigs of vodka our voices became a little louder and one of the waiters approached us saying that we were in ....a very respectable place and would we please not make so much noise. Jurziek said to him:
What, are we in a church?The waiter replied that although we were not in a church, we were ...not in a synagogue, either!
The waiter had touched our most sensitive spot. The three of us stood as one, ready to fall upon the waiter.
You damned bastard, Jurziek threw at him, adding a few other choice curses, and the waiter, not expecting that reaction, became pale and stood stock still for a moment, not knowing what to do. Then, starting to back away, threw back at us; Dirty Jews!
With that, Jurziek let go with a tremendous punch to the waiter's face and he flew backwards, falling to the floor. He tried to get up, but now the three of us fell on him with our hands and feet. Other waiters came to help him, and a real bar-brawl broke out between them and us and people from all corners of the foyer gathered round us in a circle, watching the exchange of blows. The waiter who had been knocked down had stood up in the meantime and drawn a knife from his pocket, advancing towards Jurziek. The other waiters tried to stop him, while Jurziek took hold of the bottle of vodka by the neck, knocked it on the edge of the table, broke it into two and threw the part remaining in his hand, at the waiter. Who knows how it would all have ended had not a tall Russian officer suddenly appeared and ordered in a commanding voice:
Stop! Everyone froze in their place and the officer placed himself between the waiters and us and said to us in Russian:
Clear off out of here, immediately!Semen snapped to attention and began to tell him about the 'Fascist waiter' but the officer cut him short saying:
I'm not interested in what happened; I don't care. Get out of here!We went out of the hotel through the revolving door and once in the street broke into fits of uncontrollable laughter. We walked gaily along, arm-in-arm, as if there were no happier people on the face of the earth.
These were wonderful days for we three friends. Every morning we met Semen, and spent all day together, wandering the streets, in restaurants, cinemas. It seemed to me that our being together was the most important thing in the world. So closely bound was I, with my two friends, that I felt only with them could I feel well. The truth of the matter was, each one of us knew, deep down inside, that the days of carefree happiness were drawing to a close; the bond would unravel very quickly and we might possibly never meet again.
When the plaster was removed from Semen's leg, we parted from him with fervent promises to stay in touch. A short while after that, Jurziek said that he had to go to Chelm ...to arrange a few things, and that he was undecided about what to do with his life and where to settle down.
The wonderful days that I had spent with Jurziek and Semen, had flown away and were no more. I felt terribly alone. I saw no point in life. I saw nothing to hope for. The feeling that I didn't belong to the world around me came back to haunt me. The wonderful prize I had won, of staying alive, seemed nothing more than a punishment. Harry and Ula did everything they could to help by spoiling me, as one would spoil a little child, and I was grateful to them with all my heart and valued their efforts, but for some reason, the love that they showered on me caused me suffering. More than once I felt as if I wanted to run away from the house of my good hosts, and never come back, but I couldn't bring myself to do such a thing to them.
The Eighth of May. The end of the war. the radio announced that the Soviet army had entered Berlin, the Russian flag was flying on the Reichstag. The Chiefs of Hitler's General Staff had signed the instrument of un-conditional surrender on all fronts. In the streets - a holiday atmosphere of joy and happiness. The city was decorated with flags. In Freedom Square, loud-speakers were placed all round and towards evening crowds began to hurry there, filling up the entire area and the surrounding streets. From the loud-speakers came loud music, the soldiers fired into the air with their rifles and pistols. The city Lodz rejoiced - and I strode among the throng like a mourner at a wedding, like an uninvited guest at a celebration in which he had no part. I kept telling myself that I should be happy and join in; that before my eyes the impossible dream had come true - I had lived to see the downfall of the Germans - but I remained sad, even crying. If Jurziek and Semen had been with me I would be happy, without a doubt. If Mannik were here, if Szaje were here, Avraham, Karichona, Schnabel...if my brother Mottel were here, my brother Yankeleh, my sister Devorah, my mother...if there were with me just one solitary soul from among all these! Just one! Someone! But no. I am alone, solitary. It became obvious that my place was not among those celebrating with such abandon. I was the only one in the whole crowd thronging the Circus, that was walking in the opposite direction - away from the centre, outwards, away from the merry-making.
The crowd thinned out and their joyful clamour became quieter in my ears fading into the distance. I continued walking. Into my memory came the first day of the war, the first of September 1939, and a scene appeared, startling in its clarity, as if it were only yesterday. I longed to freeze the memory of that day within me but it passed and in its place came scene after scene parading the years of the war before me, pictures too many to count - Is it true, that all that happened to me? When my brother Mottel returned from captivity I was so jealous of him because of all his special experiences, that he could now sit and tell us about - how we sat then, all of us, and absorbed every word which came out of his mouth! Now, I remembered too many experiences, but there was no one to tell them to......
I found myself striding through dark, empty streets. There wasn't a soul to be seen or heard. A strange feeling of fear, of something undefined, took hold of me. I rushed home.
I had passed a whole month in Lodz and hadn't yet been to see my old home. I had wanted to visit there the moment I arrived, but I put off the visit from day to day and even refrained from entering the same street, Jednastego Listopada Street. But the day came when I didn't have any more excuses for not going. I went and stood at the tram stop, but after a moment, I left there and kept walking with rapid steps, looking neither to the left nor the right. When I heard the bell of the tram coming towards the Circus, I ran towards the next stop, but the tram pulled away from there before I reached the stop. I continued walking quickly and slowed up only when I came near to the house.
Where was I going? Would they let me in? What would I say to the people living there now? What did I come for? What was I really looking for there? Surely I don't expect to find my family there?
Playing for time, I crossed over to the other side of the street. The little wooden house, that stood in front of our house, looked even more beautiful than I remembered. It had been repainted a light brown and the sun added something to it. When we lived there I had never noticed it; to me it was just something we passed on the way to our own big house, something which stood in the courtyard. I stood for a few minutes, rooted to the spot, my eyes fixed on the house. I was afraid that someone would recognize me and come and start asking me questions, but no one took any notice of me and I didn't see any one I knew. Suddenly there awoke within me the feeling that I wanted to see someone who knew me from before the war, to show them that I was still alive. In vain I looked at the faces of the passers-by - not one of them did I recognize.
I decided to find out if the concièrge from the days of my childhood, still lived there. I knew that she had lived in the attic of the little house, but I had never been there. I entered the corridor and went up the darkened stairway. Since childhood I had hated that dark stairwell and even now felt some discomfort and lack of ease. I knocked on the door. No reply. I went outside and approached the front of our house. I looked for someone who could answer my questions. The hat shop, and the delicatessen were closed. On the corner of the building, I saw a little restaurant that had not been there before the war, and behind the counter I saw a woman who looked vaguely familiar. I went up to her and asked her if she could tell me where I could find the concièrge of the house. The woman broke into a laugh.
Why does the young man require the concièrge? she wanted to know, continuing to laugh. Her voice also seemed familiar. Is this the concièrge? Before me stood a woman dressed in a floral dress, her lips and cheeks full of lipstick and rouge, her hair much fairer than....No! this couldn't be the woman.....
Then she stopped laughing and said:
I'm the concièrge of the house. And who are you, sir?Her face became serious. Yes, yes, I remember you all, she said. Your mother was a very nice lady. Are you the eldest son?
I'm from the Freiberg family, which used to live here.
No, the middle one.I wrote my address on a piece of paper and handed it to her with a request that she pass it on to anyone that asks after us.
Yes, of course I remember you. A thin boy. You used to play with my little boy. Now you're grown up. My son has also grown up. Is anyone else in the family still alive?
I don't know. I wanted to ask you if anyone has come to visit or ask?
No, no. No one has been to visit and no one asked after your family.
You didn't recognize me, said the woman, I own this restaurant now and I live in the big house. In an apartment like yours; entrance 'A'.
She looked at me expecting some kind of reaction, but I had no interest in her whatsoever. I told her that I wanted to visit our old apartment.
What, she reacted, do you want your old apartment back?The concièrge was willing to accompany me, but I asked to go alone. All feeling had left me. I crossed the courtyard and went up the stairs calmly. I knocked on our door and waited and while I waited my nervousness returned. I heard footsteps. From the other side of the door, a voice asked:
No, I only want to see it.....
Who's there?I stumbled and stammered over a reply asking her to open the door. She opened the door a crack, and looked out at me.
What does the gentleman want?The woman clearly hesitated, not knowing what she should do, looking at me as if trying to read my thoughts, and eventually she opened the door and invited me in. Inside, she told me that she and her family had been living there only a few months, having moved in after the place had been vacated by the Germans who had lived there during the occupation, before returning to Germany.
Nothing really...I lived here, once, and I wanted to see the apartment again, if it's possible........?
The apartment was completely empty, she said, The Germans took everything. All the furniture you see is what we have brought with us....I broke into her flow of words with the assurance that I had no interest in the furniture and I wasn't asking for anything; I came only to see the home where I had once lived. We passed quickly from room to room arriving at the kitchen. I felt no connection with the place. Everything was strange to me. Only the big cooking-range in the kitchen took me back six-years.
I stood there confused, smiling a 'nothing smile' at the woman. She returned me a similar smile and it suddenly became clear to me that my visit was meaningless - and a feeling of just wanting to get out of there welled up inside me. Then a silly thought came to me: before we had left the house I had hidden a few things on top of the cooking-range. Perhaps they were still there? I told the woman who apparently understood my feelings, but asked practically:
How can you get up there, I haven't got a ladder.I suggested very politely, that if she didn't mind, we could drag the table over and put a chair on top of it. She agreed and helped me to move the table. I climbed up and ran my hand along the top surface but could feel nothing. When the woman, whose curiosity had been aroused, asked if I had found anything, I answered rather embarrassed, that it was rather stupid expecting that I would find the things after six years. She expressed her regrets and asked if they were valuable and I explained that they were simply toys and mementos, with no intrinsic value. I thanked her for her courtesy and consideration and left.
What a fool I had been - I thought to myself outside - It was good that no one had been with me to laugh at me.
The end of the war had brought waves of Jews to Lodz, who were returning to their towns from the east and from the west. From the west came individual Jews and small groups - the survivors of concentration- and extermination-camps, spread over the face Germany and Austria, from armaments factories, coal mines, and farms. All these, the Germans had enslaved in their war effort, right up to the last moment and were even supposed to exterminate them as well, except that they hung on just that little bit too long and missed the final opportunity of doing so. Virtually all these survivors came from Lodz and the surroundings. They came searching for any members of their family, who may, somehow have survived. From the east came Jews who had fled to Russia at the outbreak of war, and survived thanks to the Soviets, who had exiled them to central Asia and Siberia, and were now permitting them to leave the Soviet Union and return to their homeland as ex-citizens. These came to Lodz in large groups, making their way from Russia on goods-trains - journeys taking several weeks. All the returnees sought relations, acquaintances or, at least, someone from the same town or area, wandering from morning till evening along the streets, especially Zawadzke Street, where many Jews had settled, stopping every Jew who happened by on his way, and asking him where he came from, where he had been during the war, if by any chance he had come across someone from this family or that. Those who had photographs, pulled them from their pockets, showed them and waited for a response.
The manic search for relatives who had survived, gave birth to its own code-word and shorthand speech, to facilitate matters, especially in identifying fellow-Jews. It was sufficient to murmur the word: Amcha? ('of the people') in someone's hearing, in order to determine if they were Jewish. If so he would reply similarly and rapport was established immediately, which enabled an intimate and trusting conversation. More than once it happened, that I was witness to these identification signals being exchanged between people, whom I would never, ever suspect of being Jewish. I had learned from experience, that non-Jews virtually don't notice the exchange at all, even when said close to them, or at the very most react to it with a brief stare of incomprehension, while the Jew reacts instantly and with warmth.
The mutual identification using the code-word became for me, on more than one occasion, something of an exciting game. One day, on a tram, I stood next to a man whom I was certain was Jewish and I gave the code-word in a confident voice. He looked at me as if I'd come from outer space and said: I beg your pardon? - I was very embarrassed and just wanted to disappear. On another occasion, when I was waiting at a tram-stop, a Polish-looking woman stood next to me. Something made me throw towards her the word Amcha'? and she turned to me replying similarly and started talking to me in Yiddish. My pleasure was intense, that time, the gamble had paid off.
The main search for relatives took place in the Jewish 'Komitet' in Srodmiejske Street, where tens of clerks worked at registering every survivor who appeared before them. The walls were covered with pieces of paper with names and addresses, some with photographs, of people looking for family members. Jews kept coming back, time after time, to check if anything new had turned up, checking the lists, scanning the walls to see if any new announcements had been put up by newcomers; asking each other the perpetual question: Do you know...? - or Have you seen...?. For a certain period, like everyone else, I too visited the 'Komitet' and I was witness to some emotional scenes of reunion between members of families who each had thought themselves to be the sole survivor and were seeing each other for the first time, after years of harrowing experiences and separation. Sometimes the opposite occurred - that information confirmed the extermination of whole or parts of families, leaving the survivor to cope with the situation.......
Cries of happiness and sorrow, laughter and sobbing, mingled with each other all day long among the throng. But the silence of the sole survivor, he who constituted the major proportion of those here, and his search for relatives and information in a low voice, bearing his pain and hoping for a miracle - his silence was louder than all the hubbub together going on around him.....
Again and again I saw reunions between relatives and I was happy for them, but I was filled with agonizing jealousy, and asked myself time and time again, why didn't I meet a member of my family or an acquaintance. I, who until now was convinced that I was the only survivor from my whole family (only occasionally did I feel a passing spark of hope that I would see one of them alive), was suddenly swept up in the renewed faith that someone of my family was alive and I had to find them. I slowly created for myself an illusion: my sister Devorah was alive! Specifically Devorah, because of her many talents she was really the most likely to have survived - she was young, energetic with the ability to withstand considerable hardships - numbered among the pioneering movement, in my imagination I saw her, quite fittingly, fighting in the Warsaw ghetto, afterwards as a partisan..........no, my sister Devorah was not one to give up easily!
My faith that my sister yet lived grew stronger and stronger until it gave me no rest - neither by day, nor in my dreams at night.. Day after day I went to the Komitet, checked the lists, time after time, read and reread all the personal notes and messages that had been put up, until I knew them all by heart. While I was walking in the street, riding on a tram or train, in the cinema, restaurant, in every place I sought my sister. I dreamt that I met her suddenly, by surprise. Every girl that I saw, whose figure resembled that of Devorah, caused me a sudden heart-stopping moment and I hurried to see her from close up - just to make sure. But from the state of wanting so much to keep in my mind a mental picture of her face, it seemed to me that the very opposite was happening - her face was gradually fading from my memory, and I was losing the confidence of being sure to recognize her, if I saw her in the street.
One day, I saw a girl whom I thought resembled my sister. I went up to her, saying 'Amcha?' and she answered the same. When I asked her where she came from she said Warsaw. I felt as if I was going to faint but when I asked her name it became clear that there was no connection between us. Only afterwards, did I admit to myself, that in truth, she didn't resemble my sister one little bit.
Nevertheless, in spite of every failure, frustration and lack of reasonableness, my faith that my sister was still alive refused to diminish and the day would yet come when I would find her. That faith, apparently, will continue to permeate my being for as long as I live.
One day, suddenly, without me knowing how or why, I got fed up with going to the Komitet and I never went there again.
Harry, together with his family was luckier. His older brother, Joseph, returned from a concentration camp in Germany and settled in the house. From his other brother, Ignacz, came regards from Russia and the information that he would be returning soon. His niece, Erika, eighteen-years-old, who survived thanks to a Polish family - friends who hid her - came to live in the house and Harry also accommodated a cousin of his wife, the family which had hidden Erika, Ula's sister and a few other acquaintances. The three-storied house with tens of rooms filled up with Harry's family and friends and Harry helped all of them to settle down and found most of them work of one sort or another. I made friends with the people living in the house, and grew close to them while they made every effort to make me feel like one of the family.
Since Harry's salary from the Government wasn't enough to support all the people he had taken under his wing, he built up contacts with managers of factories and business owners, made all sorts of side deals and sold goods without the knowledge of the authorities, in order to increase his income . I was his assistant. I was the link between him and between the factories and businessmen, I would transfer goods to different places and quickly began to learn the highways and byways of business. I was happy that I wasn't eating on charity and I also enjoyed the contact with people. But Harry was not happy with my situation. He thought when he sent me as an errand boy the first time with a parcel, that it was just a one-time only thing, because I happened to be there, and he needed someone to do it. But it took root and became routine. Harry didn't want me to become involved in business and trade; he wanted me to go and study, but he was also afraid that I would get caught. Unfortunately, at the time he had no alternative - he needed my help. Harry told me many times that I must prepare myself for the coming academic year and bought study books for me. He tried to fix set hours for study when he could help me but I felt a strong internal resistance to study. I was very much a boor, lacking in education; I was ashamed of it and tried to hide the fact as much as possible - especially from myself! Neither did I have much faith in my ability to learn and succeed at it, so I was afraid of failing. Another reason why I was loath to learn was that it would return me the status of a cared for child at the hands of Ula and Harry, living at their expense. And with that I would never come to terms.
After they had tried several times, unsuccessfully, to persuade me to study, they became resigned to the situation - at least for the time being. But Harry can take full credit and record an important victory for himself in his attempts to imbue me with a measure of knowledge. Even though he didn't have much time for reading books, he habitually read during the quiet evening and before falling asleep. It was because of his influence that I took my first book in my hands and when it became clear to him that I had became addicted to reading in the evenings, he filled the house the best of the world's literature and I swallowed book after book - everything that came to hand and I felt conspicuously how the store of my knowledge was gradually broadening and deepening, and thus, to a degree, I gained some of the education of which I had been deprived.
In spite of his failure in his efforts to get me to study regularly at school, Harry didn't despair or give up in his efforts to provide me with a profession or trade. He repeated constantly that a man had to be the master of a trade or profession, for it was the one true prop that he could rely on in life. He said that although he was a textile engineer, he had survived the war thanks to the fact that he was also an electrician, and that while under Russian rule he had worked as an electrician. Harry asked me to what field I felt attracted and which trade or profession did I think I would like to learn but I had no answer for him. I didn't know what I wanted. One evening, while we were sitting together with our neighbour, the watchmaker, Harry asked me:
Perhaps you'd like to learn to be a watchmaker? And when I didn't refuse, suggested to the watchmaker to teach me. He agreed and I didn't object; I knew him and liked him. For two days I sat next to the man, magnifying glass clamped into my eye, hour after hour following his movements as he repaired the small instruments with their tiny parts, admiring his expertise and dexterity. But I couldn't visualize myself sitting all day long, day after day doing that work. That second day with the watchmaker was also my last day.
Harry came with a new idea - I'd learn a trade in the weaving industry, textiles. He sent me to one of his friends, the manager of a big factory manufacturing all kinds of fabrics. He received me in a friendly fashion, showed me round the factory with its different sections and finally took me to a department where there were large, round machines producing knitted fabrics. the manager introduced me to an old man, the 'Meister' - only later did I discover that he was the factory's leading professional and the machines he tended the most expensive in the factory - and said to him:
I'm leaving this young man in your care. He's the son of a friend of mine, and I want you to make a good professional out of him.The old specialist promised the manager he'd do the very best he could.
From the moment that I entered the factory and during the walk round the various sections, I had a feeling of curiosity and satisfaction. the noise of the machines, the smell of wool and cotton on the one hand and the oil of the machines on the other, were somehow familiar to me and awoke memories of my parents' small factory before the war. The 'Meister' asked me if I'd ever worked with machines like these and I told him that I had grown up surrounded by knitting machines producing sweaters and saw how the workers operated them but machines like these I had never seen in my life before. The old man told me just to stand and watch how the machine operated; later, he would begin to explain them to me and teach me how to operate them. It was agreed that I would come to work every day, from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon, not like the other workers, who started at seven and finished at four. My wages would be the same as the other, non-professional factory hands, and calculated by the hour. The manager promised me that if I progressed, my wages would go up accordingly.
An overpowering desire to learn the trade welled up inside me. I saw it as a challenge - a self-test - by which I could prove to myself whether or not I was able to learn something, or not.
Somewhere deep within me a wish took root and grew stronger - I remembered that before the war, my father mentioned that he wanted to get some machines like these, in order to manufacture knitted fabrics; perhaps I would fulfill his dream and continue the dynasty? Thus, for the first time, a definite ambition crystallized out inside me - to learn the weaving trade and open my own factory, in the same way my father had done, when he started out in Warsaw. Early every morning, I got up and travelled to the factory by tram, getting there early, wandering around outside, smoking a cigarette, and a few minutes before eight, I would go inside, pass rapidly through a few sections, where tens of men and women were already working. Most of them looked at me as one looks at someone who has no right to be in the place, and made me feel somewhat uncomfortable. But when I got to my own section, I felt a bit easier, and was swallowed up by the tumult of the machines, by the spools of thread and the bolts of cloth being packed and sealed.
The Meister explained everything to me slowly, every function of every part of the machine, as if only in passing, and instructed me in how to control or overcome all sorts of breakdowns, and even to prevent them. I absorbed easily every word that he spoke and the work days passed quickly. Harry and Ula were happy that I was learning a trade and that the manager was reporting to them that I was a good student and that the 'old man' was also pleased with me. He had said, apparently, that I was one of the best pupils he'd had for many years. Ula spoiled me even more. Every morning I found my clothes ready for me, clean and pressed, and breakfast waiting for me on the table, together with a packet of sandwiches for lunch. When we sat up late on Friday nights Ula rebuked Harry for not sending me to bed ...because he's got to get up early in the morning to got to work. And if she saw a light shining in my room late at night, she would come in, take the book out of my hand and put the light out.
Go to sleep, my child. You've read enough. She would say. In the evenings, she used to wait for me to come back home from an evening out, serve me a meal or something to eat, bring a bowl of water to my room to wash my feet with - and even tried to do it for me, forcing me to reject the idea strongly, in case it became a habit with her.
There was a young girl working in one of the departments of the factory. She wasn't especially pretty but she had a lot of charm, and something about her attracted me and I couldn't ignore her. Every day, when I passed by her, she would smile at me and I would smile back. When I went out into the yard to smoke a cigarette, she would come out too and, passing by me, we would again smile at each other. Once, we exchanged a few words and our names. Maria - that was her name - was seventeen-years-old. From the time we got know each other, she used to bring me a cup of tea at work and sometimes a piece of home-made cake or a biscuit, while I would get her a piece of chocolate or ice-cream during our short break. The friendship between us grew quickly. I have no idea what she saw in me because she was surrounded with many young Polish admirers, tall and handsome, who were very angry because she spent all her spare time with me. I enjoyed every moment that Maria was near me. I liked girls but I was more than a little scared of them because I just didn't know 'the way of a man with a maid'. A woman's body was to me a thing wrapped in secrecy and mystery and every meeting I had with a member of the opposite sex was fraught with some inexplicable fear. My first contacts with Maria were free of discomfort, because they were all snatched quickly during the work-breaks of a few minutes and every meeting gave us only the chance to discover our affection for each other, like a quick sip of strong drink, which, only afterwards spreads a warm feeling through all the body and leaves the head spinning for a time. In these foreshortened meetings there was no place for fears to arise about 'what to do next' or about not knowing how to continue. My heart went out to Maria. I wanted to be with her for more than a few minutes, but I was worried that she'd realize I was nothing more than a bit of a simpleton who had no idea how to get close to a girl, and leave me. In the end I invited Maria to the cinema. She told me that she can only go to the first performance in the evening, because she must be home by ten, otherwise .....My father will kill me.
Early in the evening, I went out to buy a couple of tickets and I waited for her for ages - it seemed like for ever, until the time of the film. Eventually she came, she was even earlier than we'd agreed on. When I saw her I was struck dumb - I had never seen her look so beautiful! It was difficult to believe that this was the same Maria that I knew from the factory.
Why are you looking at me like that? She asked. Is there something wrong with me?I took her to a café, where sat down at a small table, facing each other and drank coffee. Swamped with happiness, my eyes revelled in the look on her face, lovelier than ever; she seemed happy too. In those moments of pleasure, nothing in the world mattered to me. It was enough that the two of us were alive and together.
On the contrary. You look like an angel, I said. She laughed.
At the entrance to the cinema, people stared at us. At first I couldn't figure out why, but I quickly realized that they were surprised and angry at the sight of a Jew accompanying a Polish girl. I felt uncomfortable. Feelings of happiness alternated with those of tension. To my great relief, we at last went into the cinema where darkness wrapped us all. We sat next to each other. I was very tense and suddenly I couldn't get a word out of my mouth. In the factory we used to talk and laugh freely, now, meeting outside it, I had nothing to say to her. And all because of the fear that had been implanted in me, of being alone with a girl, a fear from which I was unable to rid myself.
The film started. I looked at the screen but saw nothing. My thoughts were all on Maria, sitting next to me. Somehow our hands met and joined. Our fingers intertwined and gripped. I looked at her in the darkness and she was smiling at me. On the screen, they shot, charged, attacked positions.....but it was Maria's hand which excited me and shook my heart. Suddenly, she took my hand and placed it under her blouse, on her body. My whole body was aflame with a pleasure I had never felt before in my life
On the way to the tram we kissed. Her lips were to me like sweet wine and I was insatiable. I told her I loved her and she said she loved me too. It was very hard to part. I continued to wander around the streets, not wanting to break the spell of having been with her only a short while before. Without any warning, an entirely different train of thought stilled the lovely dream that I had woven in my imagination with Maria at its centre: what had happened to me? Hadn't the relationship between Maria and myself developed too fast? A month had not yet passed since I saw her smile at me while I worked at my machine in the factory, and this evening we had come so close together and admitted our love for each other! But I'm Jewish and she's a Christian! How didn't I notice that, or think about it? If my father and mother were alive, they would disown me on the spot for contracting an alliance with a Christian girl - and in any case, it would still be better for me not to complicate my life, at this stage, with serious affiliations. I'm only eighteen, after all. I don't yet know what my future is. Maria is a good person and I love her. I mustn't cause her any pain or disappointment. Perhaps it would be better to break with her now, before it becomes more difficult for the two of us? But I love her! She fills my life with meaning. I'm already sad that tomorrow is Sunday, and I won't be seeing her for a whole twenty-four hours.
That same night, I dreamed I was in Sobibor and within the texture of the dream, I ask myself how it can be that I am again in the camp, since I had already escaped from there once. No I'm not going to stay here not for one moment. I'll escape immediately. I am working in the Ukrainians' barracks. I go out and in my hand is a bucket full of empty bottles but, instead of going to the dump, I change direction and walk towards the barbed-wire fence of the camp. I hear the voices of a Ukrainian platoon approaching and hasten my steps, faster, faster still, until at last I'm running as fast as I can. But as I get to the fence, I see Oberscharf?hrer Wagner approaching me with slow steps and I know that I have failed. This is my end. My legs fail under me; my body immobilized. Wagner is standing in front of me with his venomous smile. Then he draws his pistol from its holster, aims it at me and shoots......
I woke up bathed in sweat, shaking like a leaf. I was afraid to fall asleep again, lest I continue with the same dream. I tried to remain with my eyes open but fell asleep quickly. The following day, I tried to relive my evening with Maria, but the nightmare kept chasing other thoughts away and gave me no peace. The scenes of the enchanting evening I had spent with Maria were overlaid by scenes of Sobibor. The figure of Wagner appeared before me all the time and the scene of him always shooting me kept replaying itself, time after time. Wagner continued to chase after me in my dreams from the time I had escaped from Sobibor, as if he couldn't forgive me for staying alive. And even though they were only dreams, there was sufficient in them to disturb my peace of mind. Strange, but the more that the time passed, the more frequently I dreamed about the camp and in every dream Wagner tried to kill me.
On Sunday evening, I was invited for supper to Mrs. Schumanski, the woman who had saved Erika. Nearly everyone who lived in the house was there, all of Harry's family, everyone in a good mood and enjoying themselves. I wanted to join in the fun, but felt sad. The dream and the future of my relationship with Maria troubled me very much and I couldn't shake it off. Those present were too occupied with their own pleasure to notice too much what was happening to me - only Mrs. Schumanski, herself, noticed from the expression on my face that I was depressed and she kept refilling my glass. I drank more and more. My head was spinning, everyone else was spinning, the furniture was spinning, the room itself - all at different speeds, and I span with them. I tried to control what was happening to me, but I was caught as if in a maelstrom and mixed up with the blurred and jumbled images running around in front of me appeared the faces of Maria and Wagner......
I felt a choking sensation in my throat. I stood up with difficulty, asked to be excused, saying I was tired and began to move towards the door. Ula got up from her seat saying she'd accompany me. I asked her to leave me alone, saying I'd manage by myself. Harry told her to stay where she was. Mrs. Schumanski took me to the door where she gave me a 'good-night' kiss. I went out and when I got to my own room, sat in an armchair and broke out into continuous crying, and in that state, I fell asleep.
The following morning I woke up refreshed from a deep sleep and in a good mood. I told Ula that I didn't remember getting into bed and she said that she and Harry had found me sleeping half on and half off the armchair. They had both undressed me and put me into bed. I was embarrassed and ashamed of myself, but Ula said:
What's the matter? You're only a little boy! I told her that it reminded me of when I was small, and I used to love fall asleep in my clothes and feel my mother come and undress me and put me to bed.
In spite of all my doubts and bad thoughts, I rushed to get to the factory to see my Maria. I went into her department, passing between the two rows of machines, on one of which she worked. When I got alongside her, I said Good morning and waited for her smile. But she continued working as if I hadn't been there, her head fixed firmly on her work. It wasn't possible that she hadn't heard me - up until now she had sensed my presence as soon as I entered the section - but nevertheless, I repeated my greeting and waited. Maria lifted her face towards me for a moment, and only then did I see the tears in her eyes.
Go away from here, she said.I didn't understand what had happened. I looked around me. Most of the people avoided looking at me and others stared at me with animosity. I stubbornly continued standing next to Maria, trying to understand what was happening - had I really offended her in some way, the other evening? But our parting had been wonderful! I felt a compulsion to speak with her, to hear from her what it was that had so changed overnight, but she only repeated herself saying, Go already! Go!
The old Meister welcomed me as usual with a smile and asked how I was, but soon realized I was upset and left me to myself. I couldn't work. I was completely restless. I had to find out immediately what had happened. When I went out into the yard to smoke a cigarette I heard Maria's footsteps behind me and thought that she would come to me and we'd talk. But she only passed me by quickly and in so doing slipped me a small, folded note, on which she had written that we would meet outside the factory during the lunch-break, in one of the side streets, close by.
When I got to the place she was already waiting. She was standing in the entrance to one of the houses, arms crossed, as if trying to warm them in the cold, her face chastened. Before I could say a word she burst out:
A number of the fellows I work with have been bothering me for a long time, because I been friendly with a Jew, but I took no notice of them. Yesterday, someone told them that we'd been to the cinema together, and they came to my house. I used to go out with one of them before I knew you, and I liked him. They started getting at me, calling me a whore, and said that I was sleeping with a Jew - and all that in front of my parents and the neighbours. They threatened me that if I meet you once more, they'll kill me. And you as well. They also said that they'll get you thrown out of the factory. I'm scared. They'll kill us. We've got to stop meeting. We can't see each other again.Maria looked like someone whose world has been destroyed and I didn't know what to say to her.
But Maria, I said, eventually, I love you!She burst out crying, And I love you too, my dear, and ran back to work.
Later that same day the manager called me and told me that he had received an anonymous letter, in the name of a group of the workers, who were protesting to him that he had accepted a young fellow in the factory who was learning on the newest machines, while they, who had been working there for years, work on the old ones. Justice demands that one of the veterans should learn to work on the new machines; they demanded that the injustice be rectified.
The manager tried to hide his true feelings but I could see he was much disturbed by the letter. According to him, he hadn't decided what to do about it. I'm not afraid of the hooligans, he said, this isn't the Poland from before the war. It's a socialist Poland and there's no place here for anti-Semitic elements... While he was speaking, he began to raise his voice as if he were declaiming in front of an audience. Suddenly he stopped and sat silent, thinking to himself. Then he turned to me and added:
Listen, Bolek, about this business with you, I mustn't ignore the slightest threat and I've got no option but to suggest that you stop working here....He also asked me, as if by the way, whether I had the slightest idea of the reason for the threatening letter sent to him and if, until now, anyone in the factory had provoked me. I didn't want him to know of my involvement with Maria and its consequences, so I told him that nothing to my knowledge had happened and that, They had never been particularly friendly towards me.
Who are 'they'? He wanted to know.But it seemed that the manager had other sources of information who kept him up to date with events occurring within the four walls of his factory:
Those that work close to my section, I answered.
You, he said, are going out with a girl from the 'socks' department, somebody by the name of Maria. This Maria had a boy friend and you took her away from him.I didn't answer. I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible and especially I didn't want to be interrogated by the manager and tell him about Maria. I stood up and left his office. I went to the old Meister and told him I was leaving work now. He didn't ask any questions. I thanked him for the trouble he took to teach me and complimented him. He complimented me also, telling me that I was a good pupil, saying that he had enjoyed me working with him and even predicted that I had a fine future as an excellent Meister myself, if I continue to learn the trade. That man - the only one to part from me in friendly manner in the whole factory - was, funnily enough, a German, who had chanced to be in Lodz during the First World War, and had settled there!
That's got nothing to do with it, I said, having absolutely no wish to discuss that aspect of the matter with him.
No! He said. That's got 'everything to do with it' It's probably the main reason why this whole thing started and they don't want you here.
I left the factory without looking at anyone. I boarded a tram, which at that time of the day was empty. I sat at the back, with the feeling that it had come especially to take me from that terrible place and to transport me to a place of safety. I wasn't able to think straight on any subject, I only felt a certain relief. People got on and off and I saw them as if through a semi-opaque curtain and heard their voices as if from a distance. When the tram came to my stop, I felt stuck to my seat. I got off at the other side of Freedom Square, at Nowomiejska Street which, in its time had been the noisiest place in Lodz. It was the street where most Jewish business had taken place. In every house, building and courtyard there had been shops and workshops, from the ground-floor on up, and in these shops it had been possible to buy things at half the price asked for in Piotrkowska Street. All the farmers in the surrounding countryside and most of the Jews in the city had come to Nowomiejska Street to purchase their needs. The smell of skins, rubber, and textiles all mixed up together, had filled the whole length of the street, and together with those aromas, sausages and other cooking smells. Now the street was silent, deserted almost; most of the shops were shut and only the musty smell of mildew and rotting things pervaded the atmosphere.
When I was a child, my father had sometimes sent me to Nowomiejska Street to buy parts that he needed urgently for the factory, and in those days certain shops became fixed in my mind as places that I hated; there they would treat me as a little child, test me with all sorts of questions and laugh at me - and there were shops that I loved, where they treated me simply as another customer who had come to make purchases and would even add some small item or another, like a pencil or sharpener, without asking me for anything. Did not one of these traders survive?
I continued walking in the direction of Baluty, the suburb in which lived, before the war, impoverished Jews in extreme conditions, and in which the Germans had built the ghetto and forced all the Jews of Lodz and the surrounding countryside to cram into.
My father had taken me there once, to visit one of his friends, whose wife was desperately ill. He lived in one room with his wife and five children. That same room also served as his workshop - a cobbler's shop. At one side of the room had stood his large work-bench on, and around which were arrayed a selection of tools and piles of leather of all sorts, and on the other side of the room stood two large beds, in one of which lay the sick woman. My father asked kindly how she was and she answered by glancing upwards and saying:
Everything is in the hands of the Almighty.Other people joined us and we all said the afternoon and evening prayers, and recited Psalms to help her recovery to full health. Afterwards we all wished her a speedy recovery although we knew that her days were numbered. I thanked God, then, that my mother and father were both healthy and not poor.
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