In the Mouth of the Wolf (5 page)

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
5.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

He gave me a dirty look. I ignored him and turned my attention back to the floor. I heard him mutter something to the boss. Then all of a sudden he began speaking in a weird singsong. It didn't make sense, and it certainly sounded silly. He must really be drunk, I thought. Krysia began to giggle. “Mr. Kaminski, what are you doing? What are you saying?”

His arm shot out. His finger pointed at me. “Ask Wanda! She'll know…because that's
Jewish
!”

I froze, but just for a moment. “Keep your head,” I told myself. “You'll be all right if you keep your head.” He was probably so drunk he didn't know what he was saying. “I should know?” I shrugged nonchalantly. “Why should I?”

“Why? Because your name isn't Wanda. Your name's Sarah!” All Jewish girls were named Sarah as far as Poles were concerned.

“What are you talking about?” I answered, looking
him straight in the eye. “My name is Wanda Gajda, and you know it!”

“Oh, no, it's not!” he insisted.

Then Krysia jumped in. “You're crazy! Wanda is my best friend. She's not Jewish!” Everyone started arguing at once until Mr. Kaminski finally bellowed, “If you're not Jewish, prove it! Show me your passport!”

“Gladly!” I took out my passport and handed it to him. He examined it a moment, then slipped it into his pocket.

“This passport is mine now. I'm taking it to the police. I'm not hiding Jews in my house!”

He might be bluffing, but I knew one thing: I had to get that passport back.

“You don't know what you're talking about, Mr. Kaminski,” I said. “If anyone's going to the police, it's me. Since when do you have the right to confiscate my passport? Who knows what you're planning to do with it? If you don't give my passport back right now, you'd better watch out!”

“That's what you say. Forget about your passport. I'm keeping it.” He lurched to his feet. “Now I am going upstairs. Good night, everyone.” And upstairs to his own apartment he went, taking my passport with him.

I lay awake that night making plans. I had to leave. There were too many “incidents”: first the episode with the boss; now this. I had three weeks' salary tucked away in one of my belts for just such an emergency. But I couldn't leave without my passport. I had to get it back.

The next morning I went upstairs to have a talk with Mrs. Kaminski. She opened the door when I knocked, but I didn't go in. “I have something very serious to discuss with you,” I began. “Last night your husband came in drunk
and tried to get me to go to the tavern with him. I don't go out with married men, so I refused. But because I said no, he accused me of being a scabby, dirty Jew. Not only that, he took my passport away and refused to give it back to me. I need your help, Mrs. Kaminski, because if I don't get my passport, I'm going straight to the Gestapo. I can speak German and I intend to tell the Gestapo that your husband stole my passport so he could sell it to a Jew. I hope your husband speaks German, Mrs. Kaminski, because he's going to have to talk awfully fast when the Gestapo hauls him in. Believe me, I don't want to make trouble for you. All I want is my passport. Speak to your husband. Maybe you can talk some sense into him.”

By the time I finished, the woman was trembling. “Please wait,” she said. She went into the bedroom. I could hear Mr. Kaminski snoring through the open door. A few minutes later she returned with my passport.

“Thank you so much,” I said as I took it from her. “I didn't want the police around here any more than you did. Isn't it nice that we women can settle these things quietly among ourselves?”

She didn't answer.

Now I was ready. I came downstairs just as Krysia and her father were leaving for church. They asked if I were going with them, as I usually did. I said I had something to take care of first; I'd be along in a while. As soon as they left, I packed my suitcase and started walking toward the railway station. Suddenly I saw the boss coming down the street. Fortunately he didn't see me. I ducked into a doorway and waited until he passed. Then I continued on to the station, bought a ticket for Warsaw, and caught the next train out. And that was the last I saw of the leather shop in Rudniki.

Tike Man in the Railway Cap

 

 

      I went to Tosia Altman's apartment as soon as I arrived in Warsaw only to find she didn't live there anymore. I still had a telephone number—the one Miss Adamowicz originally gave me—but I was reluctant to use it. The underground changed phone numbers frequently to throw off the police, and there was always the possibility of the line being tapped. I had a better idea. Every apartment house kept a registration book of its tenants. When people moved, they signed themselves out, writing the new address in the register. The registration book was always kept in the janitor's apartment. I went down there, and in exchange for two cigarettes the janitor let me look up Tosia's new address.
I copied it down, took the tramway over, and found she didn't live there anymore either. In three weeks she had had three addresses. Well, what works once works twice. I went to see the janitor. This fellow didn't smoke, but he did drink. In exchange for a small bottle of vodka, he let me copy down the new address.

This time I was in luck. Tosia was still living there. I found her in the tenants' registry listed as a private tutor. I looked up the apartment number, went upstairs, and knocked on the door. A woman opened the door and asked what I wanted. I asked if Tosia were there and was told she was out giving private lessons but would probably be back in the early afternoon. I thanked the woman and went back outside, where I waited until two o'clock.

As I was going upstairs, a tall, thin, blonde girl came running downstairs past me. I didn't have to look twice to know she was also Jewish and on the run like myself, but I said nothing. I continued upstairs, knocked on the apartment door once more, and this time it was Tosia who answered. She was very surprised to see me.

“How did you find me here?” she asked.

I told her it was a simple matter of paying off the different janitors and looking her up in the registry. She was very upset.

“Then anyone can find me!”

“Sure,” I replied, “if you know how to do it.”

She then asked me what I wanted, and I told her I needed a place to stay. Staying with her was impossible because her apartment was a contact point for several different underground groups. I asked if a thin blonde girl just left the apartment, because I spotted her as Jewish. This horrified Tosia even more.

“How could you tell? She's so blonde and good looking. Her name is Astrid.”

“I don't care what her name is,” I replied. “I could spot her right away.” I could see that Tosia was frightened. Ignoring her own fears, she told me not to worry. She assured me that we would find some place for me to stay, but first she had to take care of some business. She put on her coat, and together we went to another apartment, where an older Polish woman was living. On the way Tosia explained that the woman had once been married to a Jewish man and was one of the few Poles who were sympathetic to Jews. The underground supported her and paid her rent. In return she let them use her apartment as a way station. At the time I was there four young people, ranging in age from fifteen to nineteen, were staying with her. Tosia didn't bother to introduce me. In the underground the less people knew about each other, the better. She went directly to a tall mahogany wardrobe standing against the living-room wall. She knocked, then moved it aside. Behind the wardrobe was a low door leading to a hidden room. We went in. Here there was no furniture, only mattresses lying on the floor. Resting on these were six teenagers, boys and girls. In contrast to the four in the outer room, they had very Jewish features: large noses, curly hair, and dark, sad eyes. They were all pale and nervous. It was obvious they had been in that back room a long time. They were desperate. Where could they go? Their faces would give them away the minute they stepped outside. Their only hope was to stay out of sight until the underground arranged some way for them to join the partisans in the woods. But who knew when or if that chance would come?

Tosia spoke briefly with a few of them. Then we went back to the living room, where she conferred with one of
the boys. After that we left the apartment and got on a tram. We took it to Grochów, a suburb of Warsaw. From there we walked to a small farm—or so it seemed from the outside. Inside was a nerve center for the entire Jewish underground in Poland. Each Zionist group had its own area. Couriers came and went with messages and news from all parts of the country. In the two days I was there, I met young men from as far away as Bialystok and Vilna. Meanwhile Tosia and the other leaders tried to figure out what to do with me. Their first thought was to send me to Vilna. Tosia approached me and asked if I had the guts for a dangerous assignment. They needed someone to carry messages to the organization in the Vilna ghetto. I wouldn't have to go alone. A young man had just come down from Lithuania. He would go back with me if I decided I wanted to go.

I wasn't too enthusiastic. It was a long way to Vilna. Getting there would be hard. Getting back might be impossible. What if my brother needed me in the meantime? Yet in spite of those reasons I probably would have agreed if I could have gone alone. But I took one look at the fellow they wanted me to go with and I knew I wanted no part of that mission. To this day I can't understand how he got from Vilna to Warsaw without being picked up by the police. He was short, dark, and spoke Polish miserably. I didn't think he had a chance and I didn't want to go down with him, so I declined.

Well, then, if I didn't want to go to Vilna, what about Kraków? That was another matter. Kraków, the administrative capital of the General Government during the German occupation, was far away, but not as far away as Vilna. I could get back to Warsaw without too much trouble if I had to. I would also be on my own. I felt much better about
that because if there was one person I knew I could rely on, it was myself. Tosia asked me if I was afraid. I shook my head. As a matter of fact, I told her, I was anxious to get started. She gave me the address of a girl who would help me get settled. I was to keep in touch with her. Eventually the underground would find something for me to do.

 

Within a few days I found myself heading for the railway station once more. By this time the Polish railway system was in complete chaos, and riding the trains was an adventure. Most of the passenger cars were reserved for Germans: military personnel, civilians, and
Volksdeutsche
(ethnic Germans). Poles had to scramble for what was left. Since there was a lot of smuggling, hordes of people were constantly traveling back and forth. Ticket sellers sold more tickets than there were seats so that by the time a train left the station, it was packed. People filled the corridors, the spaces between cars, the steps leading to cars. There were even people riding on the roof. My only chance of getting on the train at all was to get on at the very first stop on the outskirts of Warsaw. Of course, I wasn't the only one with this brilliant idea. Getting aboard would be a considerable challenge even there. But trying to board at the central station would be impossible.

I arrived hours before the train was scheduled to leave and bought a ticket for Kraków. A lot of people were also waiting so that by the time I finally got aboard, the train was packed. Now one of the survival skills I had learned by this time was to find someone to travel with, usually a young woman of about my age. People traveling alone stand out, and that was one thing I could not afford to do. Once I was aboard the train, I looked around and soon noticed a young Polish woman who was also trying to find a seat. We began
talking. I found out she was going to Kraków, too. “What a coincidence! So am I!” I said. We decided to find a place together. We walked from the front of the train to the very end, checking every compartment, trying to find a place to sit. Nothing! Every seat was filled. People were already standing in the corridors. But it was a long ride to Kraków, and if we didn't get a seat now, we would probably never get one. So we kept looking.

By now we had reached the last compartment in the last car. We looked through the window, fully expecting to find it filled, and couldn't believe what we saw. There were only six men inside—there was plenty of room. Not daring to believe our luck, we tried the door. It was locked. We knocked on the window to get their attention.

“Couldn't you let us in, please?” we shouted. “We'd like to sit down.”

One of the men looked up, smiled, and let us in. “You know, this compartment is reserved for railway workers,” he told us. “But for two pretty girls I guess we can make an exception.”

Luck was with us. There were two long benches facing each other on either side of the compartment. My companion found a seat on one. The man sitting next to the window on the opposite side moved over and let me sit beside him. It was very dark. There were no lights on the train as a precaution against air raids. The train pulled out, and as my eyes gradually grew accustomed to the darkness I happened to notice the man sitting across from me. He was wearing a railway official's uniform, his cap with a red badge on it pulled over his forehead to shade his eyes. He was asleep. I wouldn't have thought anything further about it, but just at that moment a beam of light from one of the signals along the tracks came through the window and lit
up his face. I was astonished. I knew him. He was my cousin!

How did he get that uniform? What was he doing here? It was a fair guess that he had false papers as I did. But how could I make contact with him without arousing the suspicion of everyone else in the compartment? Fortunately he was asleep. That gave me a few vital minutes to think. I turned to the man sitting next to him.

“Could you do me a favor?” I asked. “Exchange seats with me for a second. I think I know that guy.”

We switched. Now that we were close enough to talk, I gave my cousin a nudge. He opened his eyes, but before he could say anything I said, “Hi! You remember me? Wanda Gajda?”

For a moment he just stared, not knowing what was happening. Then he caught on. He smiled, told me he was glad to see me, and asked what I was doing on the train. I told him I was headed for Kraków. He asked if I had a place to stay when I got there. I admitted I didn't, but I did have the address of someone to look up. He considered that, then suggested an alternative. He had been to Kraków several times. It was even harder to find a room there than in Warsaw. The city was full of Germans, and most of the hotels were off limits to Poles. The only beds available were in private apartments, and even those were hard to find. However, he did know of a woman who ran a small rooming house. She was sure to have a place for me. He suggested we go to Kraków together, and he would help me get set up. It sounded like a good idea to me, especially since it would give us a chance to talk. I agreed.

The rest of the train ride was uneventful. The train rode through the night and pulled into the Kraków station at seven o'clock in the morning. My cousin had a heavy
beard and needed a shave badly. He asked me to wait for him in the station while he went to find a barber shop. When he came back, we would get some breakfast and then see about getting me settled.

The Kraków station is an enormous elevated cavern with a long flight of stairs leading down to the street. As my cousin went down to find a barber, I seated myself on one of the benches to wait. I didn't anticipate trouble, yet I was nervous. It was dangerous to loiter in a railway station. Regular and secret policemen were constantly watching the crowds, searching for anything even slightly suspicious. I hoped my ^cousin would hurry. Fifteen minutes went by. Half an hour. I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable, wondering if I should leave, when a man came over to my bench and sat down. I didn't dare give him more than a quick glance, but that was enough to tell me I was in trouble. I knew he was a policeman. He didn't have to wear a uniform. The Tyrolean hat with the little feather that he wore was a sure sign of the secret police. Now I had to be very careful. My heart was pounding and my stomach was twisting itself into knots, but I didn't dare let the slightest hint of anxiety show on my face. I couldn't leave the station because that would put him on my trail for sure. At the same time I couldn't let him study me too closely. I got up, walked a short distance to a kiosk, bought a newspaper, then came back, sat down, opened the paper, and pretended to read. Now I could keep an eye on him.

He was on to something, all right. Over the edge of my newspaper I could see his eyes studying my face, trying to make up his mind if my features were sufficiently Jewish. I turned the page, holding my breath. He got up. I watched him walk across the station and call over a
Selbstschutz.
These were auxiliary policemen recruited from
among the ethnic Germans who were assigned to guard trains, stations, and railway crossings. Their black uniforms and red swastika armbands distinguished them from the regular Polish police, who wore blue. I watched the policeman and the
Selbstschutz
conferring. It wasn't hard to guess that they were talking about me. I didn't dare move. I sat on the bench and continued reading the newspaper, pretending not to notice. After a while out of the corner of my eye I saw them coming over. Keep cool, I thought. No matter what happens, don't lose your head.

“What are you doing here?” It was the policeman, the one in the Tyrolean hat, who spoke.

“I'm waiting for the train. I'm going home.” I said.

“And where is home?”

“Piotrków.”

“Are you from Piotrków?”

“Yes.”

“Show me your passport.”

I took out my passport and handed it to him. He looked at it quickly, then handed it back. He turned around and called out, “Hey, come over here! We have a girl here who says she's from Piotrków.”

Another
Selbstschutz
came over and joined in the questioning, though he seemed to take it much less seriously. He asked me the same questions, but in a much friendlier manner.

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
5.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Angel by Katie Price
Six Scifi Stories by Robert T. Jeschonek
Paint. The art of scam. by Turner, Oscar
Chloe and Brent's Wild Ride by Monroe, Myandra
Buried in Sunshine by Matthew Fish
Texas Secrets by Jean Brashear