In the Mouth of the Wolf (10 page)

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
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“That I honestly don't know,” I replied. “Although after she bought the blanket, she did ask if I had an empty pail.”

“And did you give her one?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “I gave her my pail.”

The doctor called in the soldier with the blanket, the kitchen woman, and the Georgian, too, because he had to sign the affidavit. The woman and I were put on probation. They allowed us to continue working, but we were ordered not to leave the city. Vast amounts of supplies were disappearing from hospital stores every day, and the authorities were determined to make an example of this case. There was going to be a full-scale police investigation. Just my luck!

Nothing happened for several days. Then, while I was at work, the police came to my apartment and searched through all my belongings to see if I had any Army property in my possession. Of course, they found nothing. This was followed by a summons to the offices of the Polish security police.

I arrived for my appointment at the police station at nine. The detective handling the case was a big, heavy-set man in his forties. He took me into a private office for questioning and immediately began making threats.

“I hope you said good-bye to your friends before coming here because you won't be seeing them for a while. We know all about your racket. We caught you red-handed. It'll be a long time before you see the outside of a jail cell.” “Really?” I replied with a sly grin. “That's too bad. But as long as you're going to throw me in a cell, could you throw a couple of good-looking guys in with me? Then I wouldn't mind so much.”

Once I called his bluff, he laughed and relaxed considerably. “Okay, let's see your papers.” He looked them over and asked why I didn't have a new identity card.

“I come from Piotrków, and we don't use identity
cards much there,” I explained. “A work card and a passport are usually enough. I know I should have an identity card, but getting one means taking off a day from work and going down to city hall. Frankly, I can't afford to lose the pay.” “But how did you get by so long without an identity card? You have to show one to get rations.”

“I don't need rations,” I told him. “I get all my meals at the hospital.”

The detective nodded. “I see. Well, that makes sense. But let me give you some advice. Go get yourself an identity card right away, even if you do have to take off a day from work. All civilians in Kraków are supposed to have them, and if the Germans catch you without one, they won't listen to excuses. Now tell me what happened at the hospital.”

I told the same story I told the doctor but with a slight variation. I knew that as a Pole the detective probably hated Russians as much as he hated Germans. All Poles do. So I told him the story as one Pole to another.

“I work at the hospital. I do my job. I keep the floor clean, pass out the meal trays, and assist the nurse when she needs me. Nowhere does it say in my contract that I have to go out with those lousy Russians. I know the guy who made the complaint. You should see him! He has a face full of holes and these staring frog's eyes. No wonder he can't find a girl to go out with him! But just because I work on his floor doesn't give him the right to persecute me. I can't even tell you some of the filthy things he said. Besides, even if he were the handsomest guy on earth, I still wouldn't date him. I'm a respectable girl and a patriot. I'd rather die than go out with a Russian. Anyway, one day I got fed up. I was sick and tired of that animal annoying me, so I filled a basin with hot water and threw the whole thing in his face. He
told me I'd be sorry, and that's when he went down to the doctor and denounced me. He tried to get me in trouble just because I wouldn't go out with him.”

Then I started talking about the other woman. “What do you people want from her? She's a poor widow with two small children. The pay in that kitchen is next to nothing. Everything she earns goes to feed those two kids. I'm no informer, and I never wanted to get involved myself, but the truth is that everyone in that hospital is robbing the Germans blind. They take out mountains of stuff every day. All this poor woman wanted was one little blanket so that she could make a winter coat for her daughter. That's all. She asked me to talk to the soldier because I know Russian. So I spoke to him. I asked if the blanket was his property, and he said yes. Maybe I was naive. Maybe I was stupid to get involved in the first place. But even so, no one can say I took money for it. No one! Now once the woman had her blanket, she asked me for an empty pail. Well, to tell the truth I had my suspicions why she wanted it, but I didn't ask. I gave her a pail and went about my business. What she did with it afterward I don't know.” But, of course, I did. She put the blanket in the pail, covered it up with waste paper and took it down to the cellar. After work she pinned the blanket around her waist, put her coat on over it, and walked right past the guards and out the door. No one would have caught her if that Georgian hadn't tried to get back at me. But in any case, the most anyone could say about my own involvement was that I should have used better judgment. That was the detective's conclusion when he finished questioning me.

The detective was satisfied with my testimony. I wasn't called to appear at the inquest. The nurses gave me an outstanding character reference, stating that I was honest, conscientious
about my work, and went out of my way to be helpful. The doctor included these references as part of his testimony at the trial, and I believe they made a difference. The widow received a two-month jail term for stealing the blanket. I was merely fired, as the verdict said, “for being part of a conspiracy, though not deriving personal benefit from it.”

Potatoes for the SS

 

 

      After losing my job at the hospital, it was back to the Central Labor Office to start again from the beginning. A different woman was at the desk this time. I asked her if she could get me another job like the one I had in the hospital. I told her I had been a janitress. She looked me over. “Do you know how to dam socks?” she asked.

“Of course!” I replied. “Who doesn't?”

“Fine! Then I have something for you. I'm sure you'd much rather have a sewing job instead of doing that heavy cleaning work. Besides, there aren't any cleaning jobs open right now.” She gave me an uncertain look as she said that, as if she couldn't imagine why someone who spoke and
dressed as I did wanted to be a cleaning woman in the first place.

“Then let it be sewing,” I told her. It wasn't exactly the type of work I was looking for, but I knew that if I turned it down for no good reason, I'd never get another job through the Central Labor Office.

She gave me the address of a clothing factory in Kraków Ptaszów that manufactured uniforms. I took the tram out, found the place, and went in. Five Polish teenagers—three girls and two boys—were in the front office packing tunics and trousers into boxes. I asked one of the girls where to go for my interview and was directed to one of the inner offices. I opened the door and found to my astonishment that the factory was an outpost of the small ghetto in Kraków, similar to the shop in Piotrków. The secretary at the desk, the foreman, the office manager, and all the other workers were Jewish. The only Poles were the teenagers out front. When I saw this, I knew I didn't dare take that job. No one can spot a Jew faster than another Jew.

I went up to the office manager's desk for my interview, but she immediately started yelling, “Who are you? What are you doing here? Who sent you in? Can't you see I'm busy? Go outside and wait till you're called!” Her arrogance surprised me. She treated the Poles in that place like dirt, constantly yelling and screaming at them. Later I realized why. Every job in that plant was a ticket to life for some Jewish man or woman. She didn't want Poles hogging those precious positions. In a sense the office manager and I were thinking along similar lines. We both didn't want me working there.

I went back outside, thinking all the while of what I
could do to make her reject me. As I was waiting, I started talking to one of the Polish girls.

“Hi. How are you doing?”

“Fine.”

“Tell me something. The Central Labor Office sent me over to interview for a job here. Is this a good place to work? What kind of benefits do they give you? Any ration cards?”

She looked around to make sure no one was listening. “Hell! The Jews carry on here just like they did before. Better be careful you don't get stuck in this dump unless you want to be ruled by Jews!”

That I already knew. The question was how to get out of it without actually turning the job down. I was still thinking when the secretary called my name. I went back into the office and the first question the office manager asked me was “Can you sew?”

I saw my way out. “No,” I said.

“What's this?” she exclaimed, getting very flustered. “Those idiots at the Central Labor Office! They know I need people who can sew! Why do they send me someone who can't?”

“Don't get excited,” I said. “The lady asked if I knew how to dam socks. I told her yes, so she sent me over. How was I to know what you wanted?”

The office manager was furious. She took my application and scrawled “UNQUALIFIED!” across it. Problem solved. But I still needed a job.

At this time I was living in a third-floor apartment on Ditla Street. Living on the second floor was an older couple whom I got to know. These people had a tanner boarding with them who worked for the SS. I told my troubles to
my neighbor, and she suggested I talk to the tanner. He might know a way of getting a job with the SS.

I went to talk with him that evening. He told me the SS had its own hiring agency, separate from the Central Labor Office. He gave me its address and urged me to go down the next day. “You're sure to find something,” he assured me. “They're always looking for people to work.”

Sure enough, I got a job. I was assigned to the kitchen of the Third SS Pioneer Training Battalion, headquartered on the Bernardinerstrasse, just across from the Wawel Palace. It was exactly what I was looking for. I qualified for a work card and got my meals free. But it was no vacation. The work was physically taxing, but far more exhausting was the mental strain.

I and five other women sat in one room from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon. We ate together, took our breaks together, and worked together for ten long hours. I couldn't have been more out of place if I suddenly found myself on another planet. I came from a traditional Jewish background and the class difference between us was enormous.

One was a prostitute. Another had been a prostitute but was married now. There was an illiterate Ukrainian woman working to support herself and her illegitimate baby, an old, beaten-down crone so starved her bones showed through her skin, and her fourteen-year-old daughter. The daughter was surprisingly pretty. Of all those hags, she was the only pleasant one. At least every word out of her mouth wasn't a swear word.

Our main job was peeling potatoes. We peeled mountains of them! Each women was responsible for her own. We lugged the potatoes in baskets, twenty to thirty pounds at a time, from the storeroom in the basement to the scrubbing
room. There we washed them down, peeled them, and put them in big basins of water to keep them from turning black. We each had our own basin. When it was full, we took our potatoes to the sink to wash them several more times before dumping them into big steam kettles to cook. From time to time there were other chores as well: washing spinach, chopping rhubarb, hulling strawberries.

Spinach, rhubarb, and strawberries were a vacation compared to those potatoes. When one of us was assigned to an easier job, she guarded it like gold. Let someone try to horn in, and the curse words flew. It was the vilest, filthiest language I had ever heard. Even the soldiers in the hospital didn't talk like that. And when the women began bullying me and trying to push me out of the easier jobs, I had to fight back, cursing as they did, or they would have made my life hell. But no matter how hard I tried, no matter how often I mouthed those curses silently to myself, when the time came I simply could not bring myself to say them.

They found other ways to torment me. We would be sitting, peeling potatoes, and soon the two prostitutes would start telling the filthiest stories about their experiences. My face would turn purple with embarrassment to hear such things. Then they would howl with laughter, saying, “Look at Wanda! I bet she's still a virgin! Just like a Jewish girl!” As long as they teased me about being a virgin, I could ignore it. But when it started to be a “Jewish virgin,” that was bad.

Once I went down to the basement to fetch potatoes. When I came back I caught the married woman behind the door with a soldier. I couldn't speak. I turned away, shaking with embarrassment and disgust. She really began giving it to me after that. “Look at her! She thinks she's better than us, our virgin. Our Jewish virgin!”

Our kitchen was responsible for preparing the recruits' mess. Every morning the soldiers lined up for a breakfast of coffee, a roll, and a pat of butter, cheese, jam, or salami. The big meal was served at two, and we spent most of the day preparing for it. Each of the various jobs had a definite status. Peeling potatoes was the lowest. The next step up was helping the cook, and it was a very big step.

I hadn't been working there long when I was promoted to cook's assistant. I chopped parsley, grated onions, beat eggs, and generally did whatever he told me to do. At mess call I stood behind the gravy or the potatoes and dished it out to the recruits as they came by. Since we also prepared the sergeants' mess, we sometimes got extra treats. The cook once gave me two oranges. I hadn't seen an orange since the war began!

What a character that cook was! He may have been an SS man, but he certainly had a sense of humor. When he first assigned me to help him, I was surprised because I hadn't been working there that long. I asked why he picked me over the others, and he said, “If I have to have hair in my soup, at least I want it to be clean hair.” But sometimes he got fresh. Once he followed me down to the basement and made a pass. I told him to get lost.

“I suppose you think you're Queen Wanda?” he said grumpily when I made it clear I wanted nothing to do with him. He was referring to the legendary Queen Wanda of Polish history who drowned herself in the Vistula River rather than marry a German prince.

“No,” I replied. “I'm only Wanda the potato scrubber. But I don't go with Germans either.”

He left me alone after that. He could have sent me back to peeling potatoes, but I knew he wouldn't. Who would replace me? One of those women? Later on he also
brought in the young girl. I didn't mind because she was nice. However, by now all the others were jealous, especially the two prostitutes. They were constantly making remarks about their “Jewish virgin.” They didn't bother the other girl. She was just a kid, and her mother was still working with them. But they started on me and got nastier and coarser by the day. Real trouble was bound to start. I knew I had to get away from the whole pack of them…and soon!

On Monday I made my move. Nothing drastic—I simply stopped going to work. On Wednesday two SS soldiers with helmets and fixed bayonets came to my apartment and took me to the office of Scharfführer Meyers, the sergeant in charge of civilian workers. He was a serious man who was known for being strict but fair. He could have fired me right then, but because I had the reputation of being a good worker, he decided to give me the benefit of the doubt. He asked why I hadn't come to work, and when I failed to give him a good excuse, he punished me by demoting me to a lower job, one even lower than peeling potatoes. I was assigned to clean offices on the second and third floors.

This was a considerable step down. The pay was less, and I no longer received free meals. But at least I was away from those women. After a while I began liking the work. It was a much more interesting job. Before, I never got out of the kitchen. Now I went all over the building, seeing whatever was going on. When I first began, I was assigned to work with another girl. We started early in the morning before the soldiers ate breakfast. We had to work quickly because the floors had to be mopped before the men came to work. I hadn't been at it long when I made one of those unwitting slips. Each office had a sink. In one it was by the window instead of by the door. The other girl mopped that
office the same way she mopped the others, from the window to the door. Then she carried the bucket back to the sink to empty it. I thought that was pretty stupid, lugging a dripping bucket of dirty water over a freshly mopped floor. When I began mopping that room I did it the other way around—from door to window. Then I emptied the bucket in the sink and tiptoed out. When the other girl saw me doing it that way she was amazed.

“Wanda, you work just like a Jew! Backwards!”

Oh, no, I thought. It's starting again. I knew that if I wanted to keep this job I would have to get away from her, too. After a while I saw my chance. She was a hard worker who always finished her half first, then nagged me to hurry up. One day I said, “I'm sorry, but this isn't working. You're always done before I am, and it's getting on my nerves. I don't want to slow you down or get in your way, so let's divide the rooms between us. You take half of them and I'll take the other half, and we'll each be responsible for doing our own.”

That was fine with her and it was paradise for me. At last I could work by myself without worrying about someone watching my every move. I had music. Every office had a radio, and the first thing I did when I came in was turn it on. How the music lifted my day! I walked down the hallways with my bucket and mop, whistling and singing songs from operettas. I love to sing, though I can't carry a tune. For the first time in months I was actually enjoying myself. Sometimes I didn't finish on time, but it didn't matter. Nobody cared. The soldiers went on with their jobs while I worked around them. In time I got to know them, and one became my friend.

His name was Adrian. He was a sergeant like Meyers.
His job was making out the regimental payroll. I was cleaning his office with the radio on when he suddenly came in. He caught me completely by surprise. I was afraid he might punish me. Poles were forbidden to own or listen to a radio. But he didn't mind at all. He listened to the radio all the time while he worked, so what harm was there in my listening, too? We began talking, and he was quite surprised to find that I not only spoke German, but had attended a gymnasium. From then on I was no ordinary cleaning girl in his eyes. I was a person of culture and intelligence, someone worth talking to. We had long conversations about music, philosophy, and literature while he did the payroll and I mopped the floor. We often discussed Goethe because Adrian considered Goethe the greatest poet who ever lived. As a matter of fact, Adrian was a poet himself. He often worked on his poems when he should have been working on the payroll. He'd read me a few from time to time to see what I thought. They were quite good. Once he asked if I would like to make some money. He needed someone to do his washing. He offered to pay me in cigarettes, which were better than money because I could get a good price for them on the black market. I did such a good job that Adrian recommended me to his friends. Soon I was doing their washing, too.

Everything was working out beautifully. Instead of filthy talk and dirty looks, I had music, good conversation, and a nice little income on the side selling cigarettes to the neighbors.

 

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
11.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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