In the Mouth of the Wolf (6 page)

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
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“Tell me, Miss, where are you going?”

“To Piotrków,” I said again. “I'm waiting for my train.”

“Do you live in Piotrków?”

“Yes.”

“Really? Well, what do you know about that? We're neighbors.”

“Are you from Piotrków, too?” I asked him.

“I sure am,” he replied, grinning. What luck! Here was a possible ally. I had to get him on my side. So I asked him, “What church do you go to?”

He mentioned the name of one. “Oh, well,” I said, “then we're not really neighbors because I don't go to that church. I go to the one where Father Krzyczkowski is the priest.” I didn't have to make anything up. Piotrków was a small enough town for everyone to know the different churches and priests.

The
Selbstschutz
nodded. He knew what church I was talking about. He looked at my passport and said, “Oh, you're a Gajda?”

“That's right,” I said.

“What a coincidence. I know your family.” I could sense that he was coming over to my side now.

“Really? Which Gajda do you know?”

“The clerk in the courthouse.”

“That's right,” I smiled. “She's my cousin. My family has the soda-water factory.” He knew where that was, too. By now I had proven myself in his eyes. He turned to the policeman and the other
Selbstschutz
and said, “Listen, men, she's all right. I know her, and I know her cousin. Leave her alone.” They walked away without saying anything, but he stayed behind to talk to me.

“You know,” he said, “the next train out isn't the best one for you to take. You'll have to transfer, and there's a layover in Częstochowa for several hours. If you ask me, the one to take is the night train. It goes direct, and you won't have to waste your time transferring or sitting in a station.” Then he whispered, “Why don't I look you up the next time I'm in Piotrków?”

“Sure!” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. I gave him
my address and we made a date for the next week. With that he excused himself and went over to join the other two. I went back to my newspaper and pretended not to notice, but I could see him arguing my case vehemently with them.

It was time to leave, but I couldn't just walk out of the station. My exit had to look good. So I got up, walked over, excused myself for interrupting, then said to my new boyfriend, “Excuse me, but did I get it right? The train I'm supposed to take is…”

He repeated the number, told me what track it was leaving from, where I could buy the ticket, everything!

“Thanks a lot!” I said. “I'm looking forward to seeing you. Don't forget to look me up when you get into town.” Only then did I leave the station.

I was going down the stairs, out to the street, when I met, coming up the stairs, my cousin, fresh from the barber. As we passed I looked him in the eye and shook my head slightly. He caught on immediately. We passed each other like total strangers, never stopping for a second glance.

I walked on for a while, turning every now and then to see if I was being followed. When I was certain I wasn't, I knelt down and pretended to buckle my shoe. I knew my cousin was watching from a distance. Sure enough, after a while he came over and I told him what had happened. He agreed that it was a very close call. Then we went to find a place for me to stay.

The Bunker

 

 

      It was very cold when my cousin and I left the railway station. Our breath streamed out in great clouds. Our shoes crunched over patches of snow that lay underfoot. Together we walked to a rooming house where a woman rented individual beds to people who were only staying for a few days. My cousin often stayed there when he was in Kraków. He asked the woman if she had a place for me. She didn't have anything. We continued walking, and I decided to try to find the address Tosia Altman had given me in Warsaw—Number 6 Kurniki Street. I was to go there and ask for Lodzia.

We found the apartment without much difficulty. It
wasn't far from the railway station. Mrs. Mokryjowa, an attractive widow, owned it. I liked her as soon as I met her. My instincts told me that she was a decent person. She lived in the apartment with her two sons and made extra money by taking in borders. Lodzia, the person I was supposed to contact, was one of them. I asked if she were in and if I could speak to her, but Mrs. Mokryjowa said Lodzia was gone for the day and probably wouldn't be back until six o'clock. She suggested I leave a note, assuring me she would give it to Lodzia when she came in. Then, quite offhandedly, she asked if I had just come from Warsaw. I told her I had. She nodded, “Then there is nothing to worry about. Lodzia is already expecting you.”

I thanked her for telling me that, though for the life of me I couldn't imagine how Lodzia knew I was coming or even who I was. Having written the note, we left. Kraków is a big, beautiful city with parks and gardens and interesting places to visit. I had never been there before, so my cousin took me in hand and showed me the sights. The rest of the day passed by very quickly, and before I knew it, it was nearly five o'clock. My cousin was anxious to take care of his own business. Even though we still hadn't found a place for me to stay, I was confident that Lodzia or Mrs. Mokryjowa would certainly help me find something. I said good-bye to my cousin and returned to Mrs. Mokryjowa's apartment, hoping Lodzia might be there. She wasn't. She was in and had gone out again. But she had read my note and, thinking I might be hungry, left me an apple and two pieces of bread.

“Did she say when she'd be back?” I asked Mrs. Mokryjowa.

“No, she didn't say. It might be an hour. Maybe more.”

“Do you mind if I wait for her here?”

“Mind? Of course not, dear,” she assured me. “Make yourself at home.”

An hour went by, then two hours. No sign of Lodzia. Maybe she wouldn't be back that night at all. While I waited, Mrs. Mokryjowa finished her housework, pulled up a chair beside me, and began to work on her knitting.

Just sitting and watching the minutes pass was making me nervous, so I looked over to see what Mrs. Mokryjowa was doing. She was knitting a glove: a five-fingered glove, not a mitten. My interest perked up immediately. My mother taught me how to knit when I was a child, and I was very good at it. I was always at work on one project or another, usually socks or gloves for myself or my sister. Once I knitted an entire wine-red suit. It was easily the best thing I owned, and I looked terrific in it. I still had it with me in my suitcase. Knowing how to knit was an important skill during the war because socks, gloves, and sweaters were absolutely unobtainable in stores and cost a fortune on the black market.

That glove was giving Mrs. Mokryjowa a lot of trouble. Having made several pairs myself, I knew they could be a challenge. The fingers are the hardest part. Four needles hold the stitches while one does the knitting. There was a trick to it. I learned it from my mother. Since I was anxious to find some way of filling the time, I asked Mrs. Mokryjowa if I could see what she was doing. “Certainly,” she said, and handed the glove and needles to me. I started working, and in hardly any time the glove was nearly finished.

“I'd love to be able to knit like you. You've no idea what a time I've had with that glove!” Mrs. Mokryjowa said. We began talking. She asked why I had come to Kraków and if I had any definite plans.

“Not really,” was my reply, “other than finding a job.”

Did I have a place to stay?

I admitted I didn't, telling her how my cousin and I had gone to the rooming house only to find there were no beds available.

“I'll tell you what,” said Mrs. Mokryjowa. “I like you. I think we could really get along. If you think you'd like to live here, I'm sure we could work some arrangement out.” She explained that Lodzia was going to move out in a few weeks and her bed would be available. In the meantime she had another one, but only on a temporary basis. It was a bed she rented to a drug salesman who did a lot of dealing on the black market. He only used it the few days each month he came to Kraków but he paid for the whole four weeks to be sure of having a place to stay whenever he was in the city. Since he wasn't due back for two weeks, Mrs. Mokryjowa told me, I could have his bed. Lodzia would have moved out by then, and I could take her place.

What a lucky break! I not only had a bed for the night, but a place to live as well. Nevertheless I didn't want to seem too eager. I told Mrs. Mokryjowa it sounded like a fine arrangement, but I wanted to talk to Lodzia first before making a commitment. Mrs. Mokryjowa understood and assured me there was no hurry. But why not put my valise away? I was surely going to spend the night there. It was late. The other boarders came in and started getting ready for bed. There were five beds in Mrs. Mokryjowa's living room. She slept in one. The salesman's was another—the one I was using temporarily. The third was empty the night I was there, but it was rented out, too. And, finally, there were Lodzia and another girl in the two beds that were left. In addition there was a cot in the corner of the kitchen where Mrs. Mokryjowa's two boys slept together. All told, there
were seven people sleeping in a two-room apartment, and by the standards of the time, that wasn't particularly crowded.

I was already in bed when Lodzia finally came in. I wasn't quite asleep, but I pretended to be. What I had to tell her had to be done privately, and privacy in that apartment was out of the question. I woke up early the next morning and lay in bed pretending to be asleep. I heard Lodzia and the other girl get up, dress, and leave for work. As soon as they were gone, I dressed myself quickly and followed them. Lodzia and the other girl were walking briskly down the street together. I assumed they worked at the same place because they continued on together for quite a way. Then the other girl went on ahead. I saw my moment. I came up to Lodzia and introduced myself, telling her Tosia Altman had sent me. She didn't want to be late for work, so we didn't talk long. We made a date to get together when she got off from work.

What Lodzia had to tell me when we finally did get together was very interesting. She thought I was Aryeh Wilner's sister, which was why she left the apple and the bread. Aryeh Wilner was one of the leaders of the Warsaw ghetto underground. His sister was living on the Aryan side under false papers, and he wanted to get her to Kraków, where it was easier for a Jew to pass. I hadn't realized that, but the longer I was in Kraków the more sense it made. The University of Kraków was one of the oldest seats of learning in Europe and gave a definite intellectual flavor to the city. It was also true that for some reason the Polish intelligentsia always seemed slightly Jewish. They looked a little different as well—darker, with larger noses. Finally, there weren't many Jews trying to pass in Kraków, which made it a lot easier to get by. In any case, when Lodzia heard that a girl from Warsaw had come by asking for her, she thought
Aryeh Wilner's sister had finally arrived. She even made arrangements with Mrs. Mokryjowa for a place for her to stay. But she didn't know a thing about some young woman named Ruszka Guterman passing under the name of Wanda Gajda.

I delivered all the information Tosia Altman had given me and began asking questions. What sort of jobs were available in Kraków? How could I get one?

Lodzia explained that the situation in Kraków was a little different from that in Warsaw. The German military and civilian government controlled everything. In order to live in the city I needed a residence permit. But since I couldn't apply for a residence permit unless I had a job, the first thing to do was find one. Once I had a job, Lodzia told me, I could apply for a temporary residence permit. That was good for three months. However, the real trick was to find a job working for the German Army. Then, just before the three months ran out, I could explain to my supervisor that I only had a temporary permit and could he give me a letter stating that I worked for the military and performed a necessary job? That way I could have my temporary permit automatically changed to a permanent one. The advantage of doing it this way instead of through normal channels was that I avoided possibly embarrassing questions about where I was from and what I was doing in Kraków. Getting a permanent residence permit was actually very easy once I knew how. But if Lodzia hadn't told me, I probably never would have figured it out for myself.

“But how do I get a job with the Germans?” I asked.

Very simple, she told me. Buy a newspaper, and read the ads. That was all the help she could give me. Beyond that, I was on my own. But I didn't mind. I had been on my
own before and was confident that I could look out for myself.

I began reading want ads. I also let Mrs. Mokryjowa know that I was looking for work. Her sisters worked as cleaning women in a German office building. She suggested I talk to them, which I did. She was helpful in many other ways. Whenever she heard of a possible lead, she passed it on to me. She let me use her apartment as my local address even though I was still only there on a day-to-day basis. But the actual footwork of finding a job I still had to do myself. Day after day I made the rounds from one office to another, filling out application after application, leaving my address with the secretaries so I could be reached in case anything opened up. I got absolutely nowhere. I was beginning to feel very discouraged when one day, quite by accident, a woman in one of the offices felt sorry for me and gave me an important tip.

“You know you're going about it all wrong,” she said, shaking her head. “There's no point in going from office to office. The individual offices don't do their own hiring. All military jobs are filled through the
Arbeitsamt
, the Central Labor Office. If you really want to get a job, go down there and fill out an application. Your name will go on the employment list, and when there's an opening they might send you over for an interview.”

Thank goodness she told me that! I could have gone from office to office for months, filling out hundreds of applications and never knowing why I wasn't being hired.

I looked up the address of the Central Labor Office and went down right away to fill out an application. The typist at the registration desk who took care of the forms was a pleasant, dark-haired woman in her early forties. Since she
wasn't busy, we began talking. She told me she was from Zakopane, a beautiful resort in the Tatra Mountains. I knew the region because I had been on a camping trip there one summer. We talked about the mountains and the beautiful scenery, and I guess the woman took a liking to me because before I left she assured me my name would get on the proper list. In fact, she promised to see to it herself. It might be several weeks, but I was sure to get a job eventually. She suggested I check back at the office every few days to see if there were any openings.

By this time I had applications everywhere. If there was any sort of manual labor available for a woman—janitress, laundress, hospital orderly—I applied for it. Now there was nothing for me to do but wait. I started thinking about going back to Piotrków for a short visit. It made sense. I was paying Mrs. Mokryjowa ten zlotys a night for a place to sleep and had to buy my own food as well. At that rate I would be out of money in a few weeks. In Piotrków I could stay with Mrs. Banasz for nothing and sell some of the things my father left with her to get more money. I would also learn what happened to my family.

That night I mentioned the idea to Mrs. Mokryjowa, telling her I was thinking of going back home for a few days, and would it be all right if I left my suitcase and most of my clothes with her? I made it clear I didn't mind at all if she wore any of my sweaters or dresses. Her face brightened up when I said that. We were almost the same size and, while she was a very attractive woman, my clothes were a lot nicer that hers. I knew she was dying to get her hands on my beautiful gray coat with the sealskin collar. She adored it. I once let her borrow it for a date. I knew she would probably have it on two minutes after I left the house. I didn't mind. She was doing me a favor. I knew she would
take care of my things, and if any letters from the Central Labor Office came for me, she would keep them until I returned.

In truth I didn't plan to leave for at least a few more days, but the next night the drug salesman showed up, the man whose bed I was renting. Mrs. Mokryjowa apologized profusely—she really didn't expect him for another week. But now that he was here, I needed another place to sleep. She told me not to worry. The elderly couple who had the apartment in the basement had an empty bed I could rent for the night. I went downstairs, told them Mrs. Mokryjowa had sent me, and, sure enough, they let me stay. By this time I had made up my mind to leave the next morning. Mrs. Mokryjowa would take care of my things and my mail, and when I came back I hoped to have a job and a permanent place to stay. I packed an overnight bag and caught the next train for Piotrków.

 

It was early December 1942, a few weeks before Christmas, when I returned home. I went directly from the train station to Mrs. Banasz's apartment. This time, though she wouldn't say it to my face, I could tell from her expression and her conversation that she was far from glad to see me.

“I don't think you should stay here. It's very dangerous. I'm certain I'm being watched,” she kept saying over and over.

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
4.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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