In the Mouth of the Wolf (7 page)

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
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I tried to reassure her by promising not to stay long. I asked if there were any way to get into the ghetto. I wanted to find my father. She knew of one way.

On the corner of the Rynek Trybunalski was the front office of a semiofficial business known as “the Shop.” It dealt in men's and women's clothing, shoes, and furs. Well-to-do Germans and Poles who wanted the finest custom craftsmanship
went there to arrange for fittings. The office workers and the highly skilled tailors, furriers, and cobblers were all Jews whom the Germans exempted from deportation simply because the enterprise was so lucrative—for the Germans. Mrs. Banasz advised me to go down to the Shop and pretend I was a young Polish woman who needed some alterations done. Once inside the store I would surely make the necessary contacts and find out what I needed to know.

I had no trouble finding the place. The doorman in front asked what I wanted. I told him I came to have a dress made. Since all the secretaries were busy, he asked me to wait a few minutes. The young woman at the desk was finishing up an order when he finally let me in.

“I'd like to see someone about having a dress made,” I said to her.

She looked up and nearly toppled off her stool. She was one of my best friends—Renia Zaks. I nearly cried out when I saw her, too, but both of us knew better than to say a word or drop a single sign that we knew each other because there was another woman at the counter ahead of me.

“Just a moment, please,” Renia said. She finished her business with the other woman and locked the door behind her when the other woman left. Then we threw ourselves into each other's arms, crying, hugging, kissing, so glad that we were both still alive.

“Ruszka! Ruszka!” she sobbed. “Where have you been? What have you gone through? I never thought I'd see you again.”

I told Renia I never thought I'd see her again either. I related a few of my experiences on the other side of the ghetto walls, then came right to the point. “I have to see my family, Renia. Can you get me into the ghetto?”

“They're almost all gone, Ruszka,” she told me, shaking
her head sadly. “The Germans took your mother and your sister off to Treblinka with all the other Jews. Your father is the only one left. If you want, I'll try to arrange a meeting. But we have to be very, very careful. There are collaborators everywhere who wouldn't hesitate to turn you over to the secret police.” She stopped a minute to think. “Come back in an hour,” she said. “I'll see who's on duty.” She didn't have to explain her thoughts. I already knew. The Shop, and all the other factories and businesses where the Germans forced Jews to work for them, closed at six. Then two soldiers, one in front and one behind, marched the workers to the main entrance of the ghetto. Once the column passed through the ghetto gate, the Jewish police took over. The Germans were very precise about who went in and out. If two hundred people went out in the morning, two hundred had to come back at night. Not one hundred ninety-nine, not two hundred one. They were constantly calling roll, counting heads. But, as always, there was a way around if a person knew what to do. Many Jewish policemen were the dregs of the ghetto, collaborators. But there were also a few decent ones among them who took the accursed job simply to keep themselves and their families alive. Smuggling someone into the ghetto was a matter of waiting until a good policeman was on duty and letting him know that someone was coming in. Then, when the policeman made his count, he simply skipped one. It was easy to get away with as long as the final count was only one more or one less because sometimes the policeman on duty included himself in the count and sometimes he didn't. Thus, if the Germans or the police chief asked about the discrepancy, he could always say, “Oh, I counted myself” or “I forgot to count myself.”

As it happened, my cousin Leon was the policeman on
duty when the column went back that night. Renia got word to him that I was coming in. Everything was arranged by the time I came back to the Shop. Renia gave me a shawl and a Jewish armband to slip on. Everyone in the store was trustworthy, so we didn't have to worry about informers. She explained what I was trying to do. Her friends agreed to help me by letting me march in the middle of their group. When the column marched, I marched. My cousin looked the other way when we passed through the ghetto gate, and I got in without any trouble.

Renia took me to where she was living, two rooms on the upstairs floor of one of the empty apartment houses. Both rooms were filled with cots. Men and women, boys and girls were resting on them. A small coal stove in one corner served for cooking and heating, though there was little coal and even less food. Another door opened onto a garret, which was directly under the eaves of the roof and was packed with clothes, suitcases, and various personal belongings. Renia asked me to wait there while she went to contact my father. She refused to let me accompany her. It was too dangerous.

As I waited, I began talking with Renia's friends in the apartment. They were as eager to find out what was happening outside the ghetto as I was to find out what was happening inside. Many, I learned, had sets of various false papers; a few even possessed the coveted
Kennkarte
—an identity card issued by the German authorities. They wanted to know what their chances would be of surviving on the outside, and I, speaking from my vast experience of six weeks, shared what I knew. “It's very hard,” I told them. “I don't even know if I want to go back. In the ghetto, no matter how hard conditions are, you are still with your family and friends. On the other side you are completely
alone. There is no one to turn to, no one to share your thoughts or feelings with. The Poles are watching you all the time. The slightest slip, the least bit of bad luck, and you are lost.” I don't know if I convinced them. Perhaps it is human nature to think things are better on the other side of the wall. At that point the conversation ended because Renia returned. My father was with her.

I could not believe what I saw. Standing before me was an old, old man, bent, gray, with a haggard, lined face. The last time I had seen my father his hair had been coal black. He was strong and fit. His posture was perfect, as befitted a former sergeant in the tsar's army. It was my father who taught me the leaps and kicks of those joyous Russian dances we both loved. It was he who taught me how to climb fences and trees. It was he who gave me the important advice about surviving as a fugitive—advice that saved my life more than once. Whatever courage and resourcefulness I had, he gave me. Was this the same man? He had aged thirty years in the past six weeks.

“Tata!” I cried, throwing myself into his arms. “Tata! What happened?”

“Later, later, Rushkaleh,” he whispered. “Oh, my, you must be starving. Look. I brought you food.” He had money, too, that he wanted to give me. He was worried that I might not have enough. I didn't want to take anything from him. I knew how desperate conditions were in the ghetto. I knew my father would give me his last penny, his last crust of bread, and pretend he had plenty more. This food and money might be all he had. I didn't want it. I didn't need it. All I wanted was the story.

“Tata,” I said again. “What happened to Mama? What happened to Polcia?”

My father told me that when he saw the end of the
ghetto approaching, he and two of our neighbors, Mr. Israelevitch and Mr. Blaustein, began building a bunker. Benek and I were completely unaware of this because Father didn't want us to go into hiding with the rest of the family. He knew our chances were better on the other side. The idea actually began with Mr. Israelevitch, who lived upstairs. He began working on a hiding place on the far corner of the attic, on the side away from the street. It was a good location. A person had to crawl on his hands and knees to get into it. Anyone searching the attic could walk right by the entrance and never know it was there. The main problem was water. People can hide a long time without food, but they must have water for drinking and to flush away human wastes. Without some means of disposing of wastes, a closed-in room quickly becomes unbearable. Mr. Israelevitch had a good plan. He wanted to run a pipe from the apartment main into the attic, but it was too big a job for one man. He needed help, and the logical person to assist him was my father. As a soldier, my father had learned all about running pipes and building things. So had Mr. Israelevitch, who had been in the Army, too. However, to get the pipe into the attic, they had to run it through Mr. Blaustein's apartment. Mr. Blaustein was a tiny man who didn't know a thing about tools. He was no help at all, but he was included all the same simply because there was no way to keep the secret from him.

The bunker was designed and provisioned to accommodate twelve people: my parents, my little sister, and my aunt; Mr. Banasz; Mr. Israelevitch, his wife, and two daughters; and Mr. and Mrs. Blaustein and their daughter. How long did they plan to stay there? Certainly not forever, but long enough to buy time: time to gather their thoughts and resources; time to assess developments and possibilities; time
to make new plans. Our apartment house lay outside the boundaries of the new ghetto being set up to house the “privileged” Jews exempt from deportation, but there might be a way of smuggling themselves in there. It might be possible to get out of Piotrków altogether. They would wait and see. The important thing was to avoid that first action. Everyone knew where those trains were going.

It was an excellent plan, but something went wrong. Though they tried to keep the bunker a secret, the news got out somehow. No one said a word, but on the day of the action when the three families were about to go into hiding, twenty-three desperate, terrified people showed up and demanded to be taken in. My father and Mr. Israelevitch protested. There wasn't enough room and not nearly enough food for all those people! The newcomers paid no attention. One—a notorious wheeler-dealer named Shaya—told my father bluntly, “Guterman, if I'm not in that bunker when the Germans come, then you won't be in it either!” He meant every word. Either they let him in or he went straight to the police.

There was no other choice. They had to let them in—all of them. A small, cramped space intended to hold twelve now had to hold thirty-five. There was no room to stand or sit. People lay on their sides on the floor, pressed together like sardines in a can. The most they could do to ease their aching muscles was kneel. Other than that, they lay on the floor, hour after hour: men, women, and children. They had to be absolutely silent because there was a good chance someone might be listening.

The Germans were very shrewd. They knew that the old ghetto was honeycombed with hiding places. Now that the first action was over, the real work of rooting out the Jews began. With a genius for meticulous planning, the
Germans divided the area into districts and subdistricts, detailing armed patrols to search every block, every house, every apartment, every closet, every attic, every cellar to find those Jews who might still be left. Room by room they went, pounding on the walls, kicking down the doors with boots and rifle butts, shouting,
“Alle Juden raus!
All Jews, out!” They lined up the ones they caught in the courtyards, later to march them to the trains. Sometimes they didn't bother with the trains. They machine-gunned the old and the sick where they lay. Sometimes they tossed them out the windows or threw them down the stairs before shooting them. They showed no mercy to infants or little children.

For three weeks those thirty-five people lay in that bunker while the terror went on around them. Thirty-five people, unable to bathe or even wash, breathing the same stale air; their sole toilet a bucket and a small urinal they dared flush only at night. Thirty-five people, their muscles aching for exercise, nerves frayed, children frightened and whimpering, not daring to make a sound for fear of giving away their secret to the soldiers below.

One night as they were lying in the bunker, they heard a knocking outside. Although it was extremely dangerous to admit their presence, my father and Mr. Israelevitch decided to take the chance. Without revealing the entrance to the bunker, they asked who was there and what he wanted. It was a messenger from another bunker located at the far end of the attic. The people there were out of water. They hadn't thought to arrange for a built-in supply and hoped to get by on what they could bring up from downstairs in buckets. But now their buckets were empty and they didn't dare go downstairs for fear of the Germans. Did my father's bunker have any water to spare?

My father and Mr. Israelevitch conferred. It was risky,
but they decided to help. They cut a small opening in the bunker wall so the messenger could come at night to fill his buckets. It was a decent gesture, but a mistake all the same. The attic dust was very thick and buckets of water are heavy. One night the messenger spilled some water—only a few drops, but enough to betray them all. The next day a detail of soldiers came to search the building. They went from cellar to attic looking for signs of habitation. Suddenly the officer noticed the damp spot in the dust. “There's a bunker up here!” he shouted. “Find it! Bring the Jews out!” The soldiers began pounding on the walls, yelling,
“Juden raus! Alle Juden raus!”
The people in the bunker panicked.

“Lie down! Lie down and keep still!” my father and Mr. Israelevitch pleaded with them. “They'll have to take the whole attic apart to find us. Keep quiet, and we still have a chance!”

It was no use. Three weeks of hell was more than those poor people could stand. The women and children began screaming, but the first to crack was Shaya.

“Here I am!” he screamed, breaking out through the bunker entrance. He threw himself down at the officer's feet and, pulling out a huge roll of currency, held it up to him crying, “Here it is! It's all yours! Only spare my life! Save me! Save me!”

The German was quick to take the money, but he had no intention of sparing anyone. Now that he knew where the bunker was, he ordered the people to come out one at a time with their hands up. They came stumbling out like cripples, their legs scarcely able to hold them. Mrs. Blaustein couldn't walk at all. Her husband and Mr. Israelevitch had to carry her. The soldiers brought them downstairs and lined them up in the courtyard. They were still there when
the column came back from work. People who saw them said they looked like corpses.

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
2.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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