In the Mouth of the Wolf (4 page)

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
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I never saw so much laundry! There were at least three months' worth of sheets, comforters, and pillowcases in that
enormous pile. They all had to be scrubbed until they were fresh and white. And what did I know about laundry? When did I ever wash clothes? My mother hired a washerwoman for that. We also had a wringer, a special machine imported from America to do the hard work of wringing everything out. Now, never having done a wash in my life, I was about to learn how.

The leather shop and the apartment where I was staying were on the ground floor. The tap, however, was upstairs. To fill the washtub I had to climb up to the second floor and carry the water down. Then I had to scrub and scrub the clothes with a big cake of lye soap, empty out the washtub, carry down water for the rinse, then repeat the whole process a second time. The woman kept coming back to check my work, and if the clothes weren't clean enough to suit her, I had to “put more elbow grease into it” and scrub them all over again. At last she was satisfied! But I still wasn't done. Now I had to fill the pots on the stove, heat the water to boiling, and set the laundry to cook. Finally, I had to wring it out, rinse it one more time, then wring it out again before hauling it up two flights of stairs to the attic, where at last I hung it up to dry.

I thought I'd never see the end of that awful day! The washboard scraped my knuckles raw. Each finger had a blister. Every bone in my body ached from lugging oceans of water down endless flights of stairs. I cried enough tears to fill a washtub.

But at last I was finished. The laundry was done. I had proven myself a good worker. I got the job. I stayed another three days helping with the shopping and various chores, but nothing—thank God!—was as formidable as that laundry.

The woman treated me nicely. She was very intelligent,
extremely shrewd, and likable in many ways. But, like most Polish people, she was also a bitter anti-Semite.

“You know, Wanda,” she said one day while I was washing the dishes, “they built that ghetto to lock up the Jews, but I swear they're still all over the place. Why just the other day I advertised for a master cutter, someone to cut the patterns out of the leather. Well, a boy showed up. I tried him out, and he was very good. I would have hired him, but, you know, he was a Jew. I don't want their kind around here. I told him to his face, ‘Hey, what are you up to, Jew boy? I didn't advertise for Jews!'” If I could fool her, I thought, I could fool anyone.

Then, on my last day, Benek came to see me. He had a day off and knew where I was working. I was out shopping when he arrived. When I came back, the first thing the woman said to me was, “Wanda, there's a fellow here waiting for you. You know, it's a Jew. What are you doing with a Jew?”

I shrugged. “It's only a boy I met on the train. He asked where I was staying, so I gave him this address. How was I to know he was Jewish? I…I didn't look in his pants!” That was good enough for her. I was learning fast. To pass as a Polish girl I had to talk like one: quick and vulgar, saying things that two weeks ago would have made me blush.

I was glad to see Benek again. He was doing fine. His boss liked him a lot, and he was learning fast. I was confident he'd be all right on his own. Before we said good-bye I made him promise to stay in contact, to let me know if he ever got in trouble, and not to take foolish chances. He seemed so young to be on his own, yet I knew his chances were better that way than if we tried to stay together. So were mine.

I took the train to Rudniki the next day. Everything about the shop was bigger than I expected. The boss and three male assistants worked in a vast room filled with leather and machines. The kitchen was the size of a living room, and the boss himself was a giant.

He was about my father's age and twice his size, standing well over six feet tall and weighing over two hundred fifty pounds. He had been a sailor in his youth and had traveled all over the world. Tattoos of ships, anchors, and mermaids covered his enormous arms. He was bald, and, like his wife in Warsaw, he had shrewd, sharp eyes. He might have been rough and crude, but he was no fool.

His daughter was an angel. Her name was Krysia. She was just sixteen, with a lovely face and a sweet, gentle nature. My first job was helping her with the chores. We got up early in the morning, lit the fire in the stove, cooked breakfast for the boss and his men, made the beds, swept the workroom, and once a week did the wash, which was much easier with Krysia helping me. After the housework was done, we assisted the men at the machines. The boss assigned one of his apprentices to show me how to make the uppers. Before long I'd be doing it myself. The pay was room and board, and fifty zlotys a week—a good arrangement. I was prepared for a long stay.

My first jolt came one day at breakfast when I overheard the boss bragging about a new supply of leather he'd picked up “cheaper than dirt.” I learned what he meant when I finished the morning chores and went in the workroom. The men were busy making high leather boots, the sort worn by farmers and horsemen. They were cutting the linings for those boots out of Torahs. I was stunned. Where had the Torahs come from? The boss found them lying in
heaps outside the synagogue the day after Rudniki became “Jew-free.” He didn't like Jews, but he knew good leather when he saw it. Since no one else wanted the Torahs, he carried the whole pile home. Now he ripped the end off one of the parchment scrolls and stretched it out between his rough, meaty fists.

“Hey, boys! Guess what this stuff is! It used to belong to the Jews. These are their holy books. So their God was going to save them, eh? Wow! Is this stuff strong! It'll make good linings for the boots!” But then he had another thought. “How dumb I am! I better save a couple. Then, when the Jews come back, they'll pay me millions!” He threw back his great bald head and roared.

I sat by my sewing machine dry-eyed as the men first traced the outline of the patterns over God's words, then cut the scrolls apart with their knives. I felt as if they were cutting my own flesh. And as the others went on and on about Jews, kikes, yids, I took those holy fragments, pounded them with a hammer, smeared them with glue, sewed them into boot linings, and pretended that none of it—the vicious jokes, the cynical remarks, the Torahs being cut to pieces—bothered me in any way. It was hard wearing that mask. So very hard.

 

At the end of my third week, the boss took me aside. My probationary period was over. I had done very well. He wanted to keep me on and even give me a raise, but as a permanent employee I had to be officially registered as a resident of the building. Mr. Kaminski, the landlord, was very strict about that. No one could stay longer than three weeks without being officially registered. He didn't want trouble with the police.

I told the boss I'd be glad to cooperate, but I would
need a few days off to go back to Piotrków to sign myself out of my previous address. He told me to take whatever time I needed. I left that afternoon.

As soon as I arrived in town I immediately went to Mrs. Banasz's house. The minute she opened the door I could tell she was less than delighted to see me. The penalty for harboring a Jew was death, and Mrs. Banasz was no martyr. However, she didn't tell me to leave, so I made myself at home.

What an eerie feeling I experienced as I walked into that apartment! Nearly all the furniture was ours. The only pieces that belonged to Mrs. Banasz were the beds. The rest—the big wardrobe, the night tables, the crystal—all came from my parents' house. On the one hand it was like being home again, yet on the other it was very strange. Someone else was living in our home.

We talked. The woman's voice trembled as she described how she watched the Jews being driven to the trains. I asked about my father. No, she hadn't seen him. She thought she saw my mother and little sister, but again she wasn't sure. She was certain about her husband. She had seen him, shuffling to the boxcars—head down, shoulders slumped, totally without hope—before losing sight of him in the crowd.

“I made a big mistake,” she kept repeating over and over. “I never should have let him go into the ghetto. I never should have let him get on that train. We should have moved to another city. I could have hidden him. I could have hidden your little sister, too.” It was too late for regrets, but in a way I felt sorry for her. She was a broken woman. Her husband was gone. She had no children. Her only relatives were two brothers who despised her for marrying a Jew. All that remained of her life was a small
apartment filled with the belongings of vanished Jews which she sold in the marketplace for money to live on.

That night I was startled out of a fitful sleep by the rattle of machine guns. It came from the direction of the ghetto in regular bursts that continued for hours. “Who are they shooting at?” I wondered. “There's no one left!” Then I thought of Mayer, my father, and so many of my friends. Were those guns aimed at them? While I lay in this bed, was someone I loved dying, riddled with bullets in a rubble-strewn alley or street? I closed my eyes and tried to block out those awful thoughts, but I couldn't. The shooting went on all night.

The next morning I knew what I had to do. Somehow I had to get into the small ghetto, to see what had happened, who remained. I asked Mrs. Banasz if she knew a way to get in. The most she could tell me was that at six o'clock two German soldiers marched the workers from the glass factory down Kaliska Street to the ghetto gate. This was a very different ghetto from the one I left behind. It was completely surrounded by barbed wire. German soldiers and Jewish police patrolled the only two entrances. Mrs. Banasz doubted anyone could get in. I decided to see for myself.

 

It was a quiet evening. Few people were on the street. Then from several blocks away I heard the clack-clack-clack of wooden shoes striking the cobblestones. “Their shoes are wearing out,” I thought as the initially faint sound drew closer. “Many must be wearing wooden shoes by now.”

I stood on the corner as they trudged by, the last Jews in Piotrków. They marched six abreast, heads down, clutching
little bundles to their chests as they dragged themselves along, shuffling down the empty street like wandering ghosts returning to the graveyard.

Suddenly I recognized a face in the middle of that gray, blank stream. It was Shimon, one of the boys in our group. I once had a crush on him. He wrote beautiful poetry. “Shimon!” I exclaimed as he came by.

He looked up at me with the great, hollow eyes of a dead man. “What are you doing here?” he said in a cold, expressionless voice. “Get away. There are people who will turn you in if they see you. Get away.”

I ignored the warning. “I have to know who is left,” I said.

“Mayer is left. And your father. Now go away.”

But I didn't want to leave. “Do you need any food? I'll come back tomorrow. Can I bring you anything?”

“I don't need a thing. Don't you see the guard is looking? Go away.”

I couldn't. I wanted to leap into that column, to embrace each and every soul, to share their suffering and pain. But Shimon would not even talk to me. “Go away,” he kept saying. “Go away.”

I followed them down Kaliska Street to the ghetto gate and watched until the last person disappeared inside. The next day I returned to Rudniki.

 

Now that I was a legal resident and had the papers to prove it, I began to breathe a little easier. The Jew baiting continued, but other than that I was starting to feel at home.

One Thursday night Krysia asked if she could borrow my belt. She was going to Warsaw in the morning to spend the day with her mother. She was very excited about her
trip to the city and wanted to look her best. Of course I agreed. She promised to return by Saturday morning so we could get an early start on the housework.

I slept alone the next night in the alcove the two of us shared. It was long after midnight. I was fast asleep when I suddenly felt someone push me. I awoke with a start. There was the boss, drunk, sitting on the bed, grinning.

“What's going on?” I said. “What do you want?”

“No one's here,” he answered, slurring his words. “Why don't you move over? We could have a good time.”

I bolted out of bed at once. “How can you even think of doing something like that?” I cried. “You're old enough to be my father. Aren't you ashamed? Leave me alone or I swear I'll tell Krysia everything. How would you like that? What do you need me for? There are hundreds of women who'd come running after you gladly. What do you want with me?”

I pleaded, cajoled, threatened for all I was worth. He was a huge, powerful man, and if he decided to grab me, I wouldn't have been able to fight him off. Nothing seemed to work until I said, “What if someone did that to your daughter? How would you feel then?” That touched him. He thought the world of Krysia, and the idea of someone molesting her was enough to bring him back to his senses. He got up and went back to his own bed, grumbling. I didn't shut my eyes for the rest of the night. He didn't bother me again that night, but somehow I knew this wasn't the end of the matter.

 

Krysia came back the next morning, and we set to work cleaning the whole house. It was late in the evening by the time we finished. Only one chore remained: washing the floor. We were on our knees scrubbing down the workroom
when the door opened and in came the boss and Mr. Kaminski. They were both very drunk. Grabbing two nearby stools, they flopped themselves down.

“Hey, Wanda,” said Mr. Kaminski. “Come to the tavern with me. I'll buy you a drink.”

“No, thanks,” I replied. “I don't drink, and I don't want to go to the tavern.”

“Aw, come on! We'll have a good time. Your boss was telling all the boys what a nice-looking girl he had working for him. I just want to give them a look at you.”

“Now listen here, Mr. Kaminski,” I said very firmly. “I am not going to the tavern with you. I have a boyfriend in Piotrków, and if I wanted to go to a tavern, I'd go with him. Besides, you're married. If you need someone to go with, take your wife.”

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
7.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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