In the Mouth of the Wolf (2 page)

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
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On the evening of October 13, 1942, a girl I knew stopped by the house. Her father was well known for having connections with the police.

“It's tonight,” she whispered. “They're coming tonight to surround the ghetto. The action is scheduled to begin this evening.”

My father overheard. “What? Who told you that? Did your father tell you?” The girl became frightened and tried to take her words back.

“I didn't really hear anything. I was just kidding. It's only a rumor.”

But my father knew better. He sensed danger at once. Throwing on his coat, he went out to talk with the girl's father. He wasn't gone long.

“I don't like this at all. I can't get a straight answer,” he said when he came back. “No one knows anything. It doesn't look good. We better not take chances. Ruszka, Benek, go get your things. Polcia, run over to the Zarnowieckis and tell Rumka to leave for Moszczenice at once. She has to be at the station on time.” My little sister ran out the door as my father handed me my suitcase. “Now go at once! Don't waste any time!”

Benek changed his mind at the last minute.

“Papa, let me stay. I'll be all right here. Let me stay with you.”

“Don't argue! Go!” my father ordered, shoving us out the door. We left in such a hurry that Benek forgot to take his suitcase.

It was the beginning of winter. An icy wind cut through our clothes as we scurried along the alleys, clinging to the shadows, making our way to the secret underpass that would take us over to the Aryan side. We arrived at the railway station shortly before eight and bought our tickets just as we planned: mine for Koluszki, Benek's for Ostrowiec. We hoped the wait wouldn't be long. A train station is a dangerous place for someone on the run: well lit, few exits, and well patrolled by gendarmes and secret police. Our train was scheduled to arrive at 8:10. We sat down on a bench to wait.

At 8:05 we heard an announcement. The 8:10 train was canceled. The next train to Koluszki would arrive at 4:00
A.M.
That news was like an iron trap snapping shut on us. What were we to do? We couldn't go home, and we couldn't check into a hotel without showing our passports to the desk clerk. His first question was sure to be “Why are you renting a room when your passports say you live here?” But at the same time we didn't dare wait in the station. That was sure to attract attention. What were we going to do?

As we sat trying to think of something, another train pulled in. “Come on, let's go,” I said to Benek. We mingled with the passengers getting off and followed the crowd outside.

Across the street from the railway station was a large park. Nearby were a number of rooming houses where the city's prostitutes worked. But since the Germans had reserved all the hotels for their own use, such rooming houses were often the only places where respectable people could find a bed for the night. We assumed the owners of these places didn't examine papers too closely or ask many questions,
so we decided to give them a try. Down the street we went, knocking on one door after another.

“Could we rent a room for a few hours? Our train doesn't leave till four.”

The answer was always the same.

“No.”

“Sorry.”

“We're full up.”

By now it was ten o'clock and close to curfew. We couldn't risk staying on the street much longer, so we crossed over and went into the park. It was pitch black. All the street lamps were out because of the blackout. As Benek and I looked for a place to hide, I remembered a bit of advice my father once gave me: “If you're ever on the run and have to hide, the best place is right in the mouth of the wolf. If the police are looking for you, hide in the police station. Hide in the policeman's house or, better, under his bed. Hide in the most obvious place you can, because that's the one place they never look.”

A long, winding path led deep into the park, but we didn't take it. Instead, remembering my father's advice, I found two bushes growing side by side right next to the street. Benek took one and I took the other. With a whole park to hide in, it would be hard to find two more obvious places than that.

We lay there an hour…two hours. A cold rain began to fall. Suddenly we heard voices. Two German gendarmes were coming up the street, shining their flashlights into dark corners. Huddled in the bushes, we overheard their conversation. They were going to search the park. Being so close to the railway, it was a good place for saboteurs to hide. They turned in at the gate and followed the path to the point where it forked. One branch led deeper into the
park while the other ran parallel to the street, right by the bushes where we were hiding. We didn't breathe. If they came this way, they'd catch us for sure.

But they didn't. My father was right. They went the other way. By now we realized that the park was not as safe as we thought. “Let's go,” I whispered to Benek as soon as the gendarmes were out of sight. We went back across the street to take our chances in the railway station.

It was very late. The Radom-Czçstochowa train had just pulled in. We mingled with the passengers getting off, and as the crowd began to thin I noticed a railway worker walk by carrying a kerosene lantern. He looked tired, as if he were just coming off duty, but he had a kind face. Somehow I felt I should approach him. So I did.

“Excuse me, Mister. Do you know any place where my brother and I could spend the night? We just heard that our train won't be leaving till four. It's against the law to be on the street, and we have nowhere else to go.”

He studied me thoughtfully, then said, “Did you just get off that train from Częstochowa?”

I said we had.

He frowned, thinking it over. “Okay, come with me. I have a place. You can stay there.”

We followed him to a large apartment building on a side street just off Pilsudskiego Street, Piotrków's main thoroughfare. He unlocked the front door, let us inside, and then up three flights of stairs to his apartment. Opening the door, he motioned us to go in. He turned on the light. Benek and I found ourselves standing in a warm, freshly scrubbed kitchen with copper pots and pans gleaming brightly from their hooks on the wall. A wooden chest filled one corner. The railway man invited us to sit down, then asked, “When does your train leave?”

“Four o'clock,” I replied. “Maybe four-thirty if it's late.”

He took an alarm clock and set it. “You can sleep here in the kitchen, on the chest if you like. I'll get you up on time.” In the next room we heard a baby cry and a woman's voice asking, “Jan, what's going on? Who are you talking to?”

“It's nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all. Go back to sleep.” Then, taking the key, he locked the front door from inside and went into the other room.

A chilling thought raced through my mind. “He knows! He knows we're Jewish! And now he's locked us in so he can turn us over to the police!” What were we to do? There was no way out, no place to run. We were trapped. All we could do was wait. And so we sat up that whole night—mouths dry, hearts pounding, clutching each other's hand so tightly it hurt—awaiting the disaster that would certainly come in the morning.

Just before four, the bedroom door opened and the railway man emerged. “Time to go,” he said. “Get your things. I'll take you down.”

“No need for that!” Benek and I blurted out at once. “Just open the door. We'll find our way down ourselves.” No,” he insisted. “I'll have to let you out the front. I don't want the janitor to see you.”

He took us downstairs and let us out the front door. But just before going back inside, he hesitated. I noticed his hands were trembling.

“My God!” he suddenly said. “What they're doing to your people! I saw it. I just got off a train in Częstochowa. I can't take it!”

He knew. He worked on the railroad and saw the deportations with his own eyes. What was being done to the
Jews horrified him. That was why he took pity on us. Our secret was safe.

“God be with you,” he said. Then, just before going inside, he gave us some advice. “Girl, you're gutsy. You have nerve and that's good, but I could spot you as a Jew a mile away. Not your brother, though. He blends in. No one will ever suspect him unless they see you together. My advice is keep apart. Don't travel together. Don't let anyone know you're related. A single Jew can get by. Two, never!”

It was excellent advice, coming from a gentile. I thanked him over and over and asked how much we owed for the night.

“Nothing,” he said. “You don't owe me a thing.” I tried to give him ten zlotys, but he wouldn't take it. “No. You keep it. You're going to need it a lot more than I will.”

I reached for his hand and kissed it, for there was no other way of expressing the great flood of gratitude I felt. In a world of enemies, this man—a total stranger—had given us our lives.

“Benek,” I said to my brother as we walked back to the railway station, “we're going to make it. Someone's watching over us.”

I was sure of it.

 

The station was packed by the time we arrived. Travel by train during the war was an adventure. The Germans automatically reserved several cars for themselves. There were only a few places left, but the ticket sellers went on selling tickets as long as there were people willing to buy them.

The result was a pushing, shouting mob struggling to get on board the train to Koluszki. Bundles and people were
everywhere. I told Benek to stay close behind. Together we pushed and shoved our way forward to exactly the right spot, so that when the crowd surged forward to board the train, it would carry us with it. We had to fight for our places, but we got them. Then we waited, with the peasants, the businessmen, the mothers and squalling babies, the black marketeers, and all their satchels, suitcases, and towering bundles.

At 4:15, with a shriek of its whistle and a great rumbling of iron wheels, the train rolled into the station. Everyone in the crowd grabbed his or her belongings and got ready to lunge forward at the first signal to board. The trainmen threw open the doors and let out, not ordinary passengers, but rank upon rank of SS auxiliary police, Ukrainians and Lithuanians in black uniforms and boots, brandishing guns and rubber truncheons. There were hundreds of them: laughing, jolly, a few drunk and tipsy. They looked like young men going to a party…or coming back from one. A deadly chill swept over me as I glanced from one handsome, merry face to another. This was the living wall sent to surround our ghetto. My own executioner was there, I knew, finding his place among the lines now rapidly forming. Was I looking at him now? My heart turned to ice. I drew back, but the crowd pushed me forward. They were cheering, as they had been, ever since the first black uniform emerged from the cars.

“Ho, ho! Our poor little Jews!” they cried. “They're sound asleep in their beds. They don't know what's in store for them tomorrow, poor little Jews!” And they laughed. “Sleep well, little Jews. Tomorrow is your day!”

The train was empty now. The trainmen gave the signal to board. The crowd began to move. Suddenly I wanted
to run. I didn't want to be here. I wanted to go back, back to my home, to my room, to my mother and father. I turned around to Benek and said, “What are we doing here? Let's go home.”

He looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. Then his eyes blazed and he shoved me forward so hard I scraped my shin against the iron steps leading up to the cars. The surging crowd carried us forward and onto the train.

 

The station at Koluszki was an immense cavern. Every fifteen minutes trains arrived from all parts of the country. Crowds of people were constantly coming and going. As soon as we pulled in, Benek got off and sat down to wait for the train to Ostrowiec. I left the station with the other passengers. I walked around to the other side of the building and came in through another gate so as not to arouse suspicion. I bought my ticket for Ostrowiec and sat down to wait for the train, too.

We had a long wait. Every fifteen minutes either Benek or I would get up and walk around. To the casual observer we were just stretching our legs, but what we were really doing was combing the station for Rumka. Where was she? Her whole plan was undoubtedly disrupted by the cancellation of the eight-o'clock train, but if she were alive and free she would be somewhere in that station now. She had to be! There was only one train a day for Ostrowiec, and it was leaving soon.

We couldn't find her. She wasn't there. Benek and I exchanged a brief, worried glance. What should we do? We really had no choice. The train was coming, and we had to be on it. At least Rumka knew where we were going, we told ourselves. With luck, maybe she'd meet us in Ostrowiec.

We never saw Rumka again. She never arrived in Ostrowiec, and she never returned to Piotrków. To this day no one knows what happened to her.

 

We boarded the train when it came in and found seats in separate compartments. From time to time we stole glimpses of each other, just to assure ourselves that all was well. But that was all. We didn't try to talk.

I sat by the window looking out as the train made its way across southeastern Poland. Broad fields stretched out to the horizon as far as I could see. A chilly autumn rain poured down in sheets. From time to time the train passed small towns—whistle stops, really—and there I saw Jews. All the Jews left in the little towns along the railroad. They were sitting in even rows along the tracks with two or three guards watching over them. Men, women holding babies, small children, all sitting with their bundles in the cold rain, waiting for the trains to take them away. These were the dreaded transports. I was seeing them for the first time, and my heart shriveled inside me. I saw shivering children, soaked to the skin by the rain, sitting in potato fields with their heads down, knowing all hope was gone. I pressed my face against the window. I had to see it all. I had to see as much as I could and more for the sake of each one of those miserable souls whose pain and despair I felt so deeply. My heart ached, but I didn't dare shed a tear. My face was a pitiless mask. It had to be, because I wasn't alone. I was riding in a compartment filled with people, and traveling in Poland is a social event. People don't just sit. They talk, and before long a lively conversation is going on among total strangers. And no matter where the conversation begins—gossip, politics, romance—sooner or later it comes around to
everyone's favorite subject: Jews. They howled like jackals when we passed a station, pointing gleefully at the people waiting in the rain. They made jokes—horrid, disgusting jokes which I had to laugh at heartily and pretend I enjoyed. After all, every Pole hates Jews, and if he doesn't, perhaps that's a sign he's a Jew himself. So I hardened my face and howled with the rest. I was learning fast. They were watching me, those vultures, just waiting for me to make one slip. But I was on to them. I wasn't going to make any slips. I was out of the ghetto now, and no one would ever bring me back.

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
6.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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