In the Mouth of the Wolf (8 page)

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
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When the officer was satisfied that the attic was empty, he marched the whole group to the Great Synagogue, which was being used as a collection point for stray Jews. Even as he marched, my father was thinking desperately about survival. Whom did he know with some influence? Could he get a work card or some other kind of exemption? What could he work out for my mother and sister? At all cost they had to avoid being put on the transports.

Several possibilities emerged. German officials, SS men, representatives from the
Judenrat
—the Jewish Council, whose members were appointed by the Germans and were charged with carrying out all orders affecting Jews—were constantly leaving and entering the synagogue, so it was still possible to make contacts and send messages in and out. Everyone in that place was feverishly trying to bribe, plead, or cajole his or her way out before the next train came. Mr. Israelevitch had some political connections and was able to save himself and his two daughters. One day an official came and took them away. His wife stayed behind.

As my father was racking his brain for some way to save our family from the transports, a man, Mr. Holsztain, came in accompanied by an SS officer. My father knew the man very well. Everyone did. He was a known collaborator with connections everywhere. He pointed to my father and said to the SS man, “Him! I want him!” My father was a skilled craftsman who knew how to set up and run a shoe factory. This was exactly the type of small industry the SS planned to start in the new ghetto. Mr. Holsztain was also probably aware that my father still had valuable stocks of leather hidden away. No, my father was too valuable to
go to Treblinka just yet. Here was his ticket out, but he wouldn't take it.

“Do you really expect me to go and leave my family behind?” my father said. He turned to the officer and spoke to him in perfect German, “How can you ask a man to do such a thing? My wife and I have been married for twenty years. I cannot leave her and my child behind. If you will not spare them, then don't spare me. I ask for no favors. I have lived my life. Allow me to remain here with them.”

It was no use. They wanted him, and they were determined to take him. My mother realized this was the end. She would never see my father again. He turned to say good-bye, and in that moment she slipped my little sister under his coat. It was a very long coat that came down to his ankles. With luck perhaps no one would notice.

Mr. Holsztain and the officer led my father away, my little sister walking between his legs. Suddenly the SS man saw what was going on. “Halt!” he shouted. He tore open my father's coat, pulled my sister out, and slapped her brutally across the face before throwing her back with the others. “Herman!” my mother cried. Then she fainted. My sister began to scream. My father tried to reach them but someone clubbed him over the head. Again and again he felt the truncheon battering his skull as he tried to get back to his family. Then he blacked out. When he came to, he was in a tiny room somewhere in the new ghetto with his head wrapped in bloody bandages. My mother and sister were gone.

 

We were both in tears as my father finished his story.

“Tata,” I begged him. “Tata, dear, don't give up. Stay here a little longer. Give me time, and I'll get you out. I
know how it's done. I have connections with the underground. Remember how you used to tell me to hide in the wolf's mouth? You can hide there too, Tata. I know I can find a place for you. Just give me time.”

He shook his head. “Rushkaleh,” he sighed. “Rushkaleh, don't you see? I don't want to live anymore. What is left of my life? I don't want to be here. They wouldn't even let me die with my wife and little child. But I am thankful for one thing. I know that you escaped and are doing well. You must survive, Rushkaleh. You must survive to take care of Benek. Even more important than that, you must survive to tell our story. That is your job. It is the most important thing you can ever do. But as for me, my life is over.”

“Tatusiu,” I pleaded with him, “at least let me get you a good set of papers. You never know what may happen.” “I don't care what happens,” he insisted. “And I don't want you doing a thing for me. I know this is hard for you to understand, but back in the synagogue, when I saw your mother's eyes before she fainted, when I heard your sister crying ‘Daddy! Daddy! Don't let them take you away!' I knew there was nothing left to live for. I am a God-fearing man. I cannot take my own life. But at the same time I no longer want to live. No. I don't want to live anymore.”

To hear such words from my father's lips, from the man who was my ideal of courage and determination, was shattering. My will to survive, which I thought could endure anything, crumbled. I no longer thought about returning to Kraków. My only wish was to remain in the ghetto with my father and my friends, sharing whatever time I had left with them.

But even giving up wasn't easy. How could I stay? The Germans kept careful records. Everyone had to have a
registration number, a work card, identification papers, and a ration book. I was just as illegal inside as I was outside. What was I to do?

The first problem was finding a place to stay. My father's place was a nest of collaborators. He refused to allow me to come anywhere near it. Renia offered to let me stay with her, which was no small favor considering that she, her three cousins, and three men were sharing five beds in one small room. It was a considerable sacrifice to take in another person under those conditions, but no one complained. They generously accepted me as one of their group.

Days went by. Living in such close quarters, we all soon became good friends. We broke up the furniture in the abandoned apartments for firewood, and when everyone came back from work there was always a pot of hot soup heating up on the stove. Then, after dinner, we sat in front of the fire talking about all sorts of things: politics, philosophy, religion.

The day began at 4:00
A.M
., when the workers lined up for roll call. By six, heads were counted, columns formed, and everyone marched off to work. Since I was an illegal, I couldn't leave the apartment. Every day from four in the morning until six at night I was alone. I didn't dare light a fire or make a sound, so when my friends went to work, I took a few featherbeds to the attic storeroom, wrapped myself up to keep warm, and sat there the whole day.

There were several windows in the room, which provided plenty of light. I sat for hours, alone with my thoughts, listening to the wind blowing through the deserted streets. The old building creaked and cracked. The very silence had a sound. There was never a silence so complete
as the silence of that ghetto. It was the silence of the grave.

Stored in the attic were piles of boxes and papers, all the belongings of people taken away in the first action, people who were no longer alive. I began going through them, hoping to find something interesting to read, something to make the hours pass more quickly. I found all sorts of writing in those boxes. There were letters, poems, stories, whole philosophical treatises…and a diary. I opened it and began to read. I knew the girl who wrote it. A lovely girl. She was fourteen years old when she went to Treblinka. She wrote about the landlord's son, a thoroughly worthless young man a few years older than I: how he was constantly approaching her, flattering her, trying to get her to sleep with him. She refused, but he pursued her. In the last entry she wrote that he had spoken to her. In a little while, he said, all the Jews were going to die, and she would die with them without ever having known what physical love was like. She was going to meet him, she wrote, “because I don't want to die without experiencing as much of life as I can.”

How I cried when I read that! I cried for her and my friends and all the people I knew who were taken away in the first action. I cried for my mother and my little sister. I cried for all the young, beautiful Jewish girls all over Poland whose lives ended before they could know much of life at all. Surrounded by boxes of papers, by fragments of lives blown away like autumn leaves, by the dead, heavy silence of the ghetto, 1 cried for myself.

 

Around this time a rumor began circulating that the Germans planned to accept six hundred illegals hiding in the ghetto as legal residents. If these people would simply
come forward and present themselves, their names would be enrolled on a special list. They would receive working cards, ration books, residence papers, jobs, and places to live. It was quite an opportunity, but if I wanted to take advantage of it, I had to act quickly because there were a lot more than six hundred people in hiding. Renia assured me there was no problem. Her best friend Luisa was personal secretary to Warszawski, the head of the Jewish Council. She went to Luisa that day and asked her to put my name on the list. Luisa promised to do her best, but nothing happened. Renia went back day after day asking, “Is Ruszka on the list? Were you able to get her on the list?” Each time the answer was no. She hadn't been able to do it yet.

I began to get suspicious. All my instincts told me something was wrong. There was no reason for the delay. Luisa and Renia were practically sisters. I knew that people with far fewer connections than I were getting on, yet Luisa kept putting us off. I finally asked Renia if there was some problem. She couldn't think of any. She advised me to wait and see what happened.

I saw Mayer. He looked very bad. The glass factory where he worked was the worst hell hole in the city. The rations consisted of a cup of dirty hot water they called soup and a slice of bread that was more sawdust than anything else. The work was murderous, and the guards enforced a brutal discipline. A few weeks before, one of them caught Mayer in a minor infraction of the rules. He beat him over the back with a two-by-four. Mayer's back was still raw when I saw him, but he was lucky. The German might have turned his dog on him or shot him on the spot. I had to do something for Mayer. I made arrangements to buy a few ounces of ground horse meat on the black market.
I planned to cook a special dinner for him the next night:
kotlety
—hamburgers—just the way he liked them. But my surprise never came off.

That night, just after Renia and I had gotten into bed, someone knocked on the door. Who could it be? It was long past curfew, and anyone out on the streets at that time was liable to be shot on sight. Renia opened the door. It was my father. An urgent look filled his face, and he was out of breath from dodging through alleys and abandoned buildings.

“Tata? What are you doing here?” I cried.

“Rushkaleh, listen. I don't have much time. I overheard something tonight. I overheard Holsztain say tomorrow they're going to line all those people up…”

“What are you talking about? What people?”

“The people on the list! The Germans are going to do something to them. They've got something planned. Holsztain didn't mean to say it. It just slipped out, and then he tried to take it back. But you can be sure he knows something about that list, and it isn't good.” I knew better than to doubt my father. He had an excellent sense of danger. “Rushkaleh, aren't you on the list?” he continued. “Didn't you tell me you were going to get on? You'd better not be here when the Germans come, or they'll take you away with the rest. Believe me! I heard it from Holsztain.” My father pleaded with me to leave the ghetto at once. I couldn't decide what to do. I didn't want to go, but did I dare remain? As I wavered, a transformation swept over my father. No more was he the broken old man of the bunker. He was my father once again: tough, decisive, firmly in command.

“Don't argue with me! You're leaving tomorrow. You're not staying here for any reason. Tomorrow morning
when the column leaves for work, you're going, too. Swear to me you will! I no longer care what happens to me, but you must survive. It is your duty to me. It is your duty to your mother. It is your duty to the Jewish people!” Though everything inside me cried to stay, there was no way I could disobey him. I turned to Renia. “You heard what my father said. I leave in the morning.”

That was what happened. When everyone left for work the next day, I went, too. The Jewish policeman on duty gave me a peculiar look when we passed his post, but Renia pulled my sleeve and we went by without any trouble. I went to the Shop with her group, where I gave back my armband, put on my lipstick and the rest of my disguise, tied a scarf around my head, and, at eight o'clock when the streets began to fill up, went back to Mrs. Banasz's apartment. I spent the night there and caught the train for Kraków in the morning.

Christmas Eve

 

 

      I came back to Kraków looking forward to having a job and a permanent place to stay. I found neither. Lodzia had moved out, but Mrs. Mokryjowa was unable to give me her place because of the drug salesman. For some reason he took a violent dislike to me the one time we met and told Mrs. Mokryjowa that if I moved in, he was leaving. Mrs. Mokryjowa was very apologetic, but what could she do? He paid for his bed by the month, and when he wasn't there she could rent it for the night to someone else. She was making a lot of money off that salesman, which was why he was the one boarder she couldn't afford to lose. I understood her predicament and assured her I
wasn't angry, but where was I to go now? Mrs. Mokryjowa said the old couple in the basement would take me in until I found a permanent place of my own. In the meantime I could go on using her apartment as my Kraków address. I then asked if any mail had come for me from the Central Labor Office. She shook her head. Nothing. Not even a postcard. So I still didn't have a job.

I went down to the Central Labor Office the next day to see what the problem was. The woman from Zakopane was at the front desk, and I was happy to see she still remembered me. I asked if any jobs had opened up since I was last there. She was about to say no, then hesitated. “There is something,” she said. “A girl was supposed to be interviewed for a job this morning, but she never showed up. I can give that job to you.” She filled out all the forms and gave me an address to report to the next day. I was now officially an employee of the German Army with the glorious title of “stairway janitress.”

 

Early the next morning I reported to a military hospital downtown, a former Catholic school expropriated by the
Wehrmacht
(the German Regular Army). The building was four stories tall, and my job was to mop the stairs, all ten flights of them, including the landings! Believe it or not, there is a technique for mopping stairs. I learned it the first day on the job from the person I was replacing. You can't close off the whole staircase because people still have to get from floor to floor. Instead you block off one half of the staircase, sending the traffic over to the other side while you mop from top to bottom. Then, when the first side is dry, you do the other. And so it goes, from one landing to the next, from the top floor to the cellar. Of course, by the time you finish the cellar, the stairs at the top are dirty
again, so the job never ends. Many of the staircases had runners which I had to roll up and drag outside to beat out the dust. And I cleaned toilets.

After a few days on the job, I noticed that the only Germans in the hospital were the doctors, nurses, and clerks. All the patients were either Russians or Ukrainians. I asked about this and was told they were members of Vlasov's Army, a special detachment recruited from Soviet prisoners of war. I had little contact with those men at first since my job was to mop the stairs and clean the toilets. But within a few weeks a maid's job opened up on the third floor. Since I was a good worker, my supervisor recommended me for the position.

Being a maid was definitely better than being a janitress. There was more status, and the duties were a lot less strenuous. I had to make sure the floor was clean and assist the nurse when necessary. She brought the meal trays up from the kitchen, and I carried them to the men who were bedridden and couldn't come to get them themselves. Since I spoke Russian quite well, having learned it at home from my parents, I naturally began chatting with the soldiers when I brought them their food. They were delighted to find someone on the staff to whom they could talk. Word got around, and I soon became someone to them. When the nurse found out I could also speak German, she made me her personal assistant. I helped prepare special diets for various patients and kept records of who was to receive which menu. Whenever the doctors needed an interpreter, they called on me. On the one hand it was a good position to be in, but on the other it wasn't. The key to survival under false papers lies in making yourself as inconspicuous as possible. No one noticed me when I was mopping stairs. No one paid any attention to the girl who cleaned out the
toilet. But as Wanda, the nurse's personal assistant, the girl who spoke Russian and German, I had a name and a face. That was not good. It could lead to trouble.

But for now I was doing well. The nurse and I got along. She liked me so much she often brought me homebaked cookies and cakes as a way of thanking me for various favors. I didn't make much money, but I ate all my meals at the hospital and that was a big savings. Breakfast was a cup of coffee and a slice of bread. Dinner was usually a meat dish or else some nourishing soup. I often brought Mrs. Mokryjowa some soup bones from the kitchen. Although I wasn't living in her house, I still wanted to keep her as a friend. For now I was staying with the old couple in the basement. I had a job, a place to sleep, and free meals. What more could I ask for?

 

The old couple I was living with were an interesting pair. The woman was about sixty years old. I still remember the long black dress she always wore and her three strands of coral beads. She had been a spinster most of her life, working in a church rectory cooking for the priests. I never saw a more religious woman. Her husband used to laugh and say, “She's more a part of the church than the cross.” It was true. She was always there. She went to Mass four times a day. And when she wasn't at Mass, she stalked around the little apartment, clutching her rosary beads, saying Hail Marys.

Her husband, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. He was an illiterate, jovial fellow who didn't take life too seriously. He had worked as a common laborer most of his life, mixing mortar for bricklayers, and only when he got too old to work did he begin looking around for a wife. The old woman had some money set aside; someone introduced
them, and they got married. But there was no mistaking who was boss in that household—and it wasn't him!

 

On Christmas Eve the table was set for a fine dinner. The old woman was an excellent cook, and she had prepared her specialty, a prune compote, to crown the occasion. I had just come home from the hospital, very tired after a long day, and wanted nothing more than to go to bed. After all, other than keeping up with the necessary pretenses, Christmas meant nothing to me. The couple had just sat down to their meal when the old woman suddenly looked up, glared at me, and announced that she didn't want me around. No reason, she just didn't want me there while they were eating dinner. Furthermore, she didn't want me sleeping in their house that night. The old man was aghast. He tried to reason with her, pointing out that I was a nice, quiet girl who never made any trouble. I had already stayed there several weeks, paying them good money every night. I hadn't asked to share their dinner. Why was she getting upset? She had never made a fuss before. Why was she complaining now? The old woman turned on the old man. She didn't want me sitting there, she shouted. She didn't want me sleeping there. She wanted me out…now! So out I went.

Confused, angry, but not daring to protest, I put on my coat and hat and left the apartment. I considered my prospects. Where was I to go now? How could I possibly find another bed at this time of night, especially on Christmas Eve? I didn't dare even look for one. It was past eight o'clock and to be caught on the street after curfew with nowhere to go was a death sentence. Everyone in Poland had a home or a family to go to on Christmas. Who didn't have homes? Who didn't have families? Only Jews.

Not knowing what else to do, I climbed up to the third floor, to the attic staircase, and waited. I sat by the attic door for what seemed like an hour, but when I looked at my watch the minute hand had hardly moved. Time passes slowly when a whole night lies ahead of you. It was a little after nine and very cold. I was freezing. The cold cut right through my coat as I shivered in the shadows, hugging the walls, praying that no one would find me and give me away.

Minutes passed like hours. Sitting, waiting, I lost track of time. Suddenly I heard footsteps trampling up the stairs. I pressed myself against the wall. But no one came. The echoing footsteps died down, and soon everything was quiet. But I now realized that my hiding place was a trap. The attic door was locked. There was no way to escape in an emergency. I had to move on. I waited quietly for several minutes, then carefully made my way down the stairs to the courtyard.

The courtyard was dark. Still, the spirit of Christmas permeated the frosty evening. As I looked up, I could see Christmas candles burning in every apartment window. There were the beautifully decorated crèches and Christmas trees adorning every home. In the distance I heard church bells ringing and the faint sound of choirs singing Christmas carols: “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” But not for Jews, I thought. As I stood in that dark, empty courtyard, a hunted animal wondering where to hide, a heavy, wet snow began to fall. Soon my hat and coat were soaked, the damp cold penetrating to my very bones. Shivering in the darkness as church bells rang out all over the city, I thought about Christian love, Christian charity. I thought of Joseph, Mary, and the Infant Jesus. What if those three Jews had come into Kraków on the train that night, looking for shelter? Would all those Masses, bells, carols, trees, and
candles do them any good? Hardly. The best they could hope for was to be thrown out into the snow like I was. More likely those holy hypocrites filling the churches would turn them over to the Germans. That night, all over Poland, there were Jews like me, desperately seeking shelter. But the inn was full. The well of human kindness was empty. Every door was slammed in our faces. And all the while, the church bells rang.

Then in one corner of the courtyard I noticed a large garbage bin set against the wall, but not flush against it. There was a yard's space in between—not much, but enough for me to hide. I opened the iron lid and leaned it against the wall. That would give me shelter from the snow. Also, if someone came downstairs to throw away some garbage, he could just throw it in the bin and go away. He'd be much less likely to see me than if he had to fumble with the lid. And so I crouched behind the garbage bin in the cold and the snow, slipping into the long numbing wait for dawn.

Hours passed. Although it was too dark for me to see my watch, I imagined it must be past midnight by now. One by one the lights in the apartment windows began to go out. I clenched my fingers and wiggled my toes to keep them from freezing while over and over again in my mind I thought about that old woman and what she had done. Did she suspect I was Jewish? What else did she have against me? Was there some way in which I offended her? How? What did I do that was so bad she wouldn't even let me sleep there? Then I thought of her little dog and how carefully she laid out his bed every night in the warm kitchen. How lovingly she arranged the rags in his little box so he would sleep comfortably. How carefully she prepared his food, making sure his little dish was always full. I sighed
to myself. She cared if the dog had enough to eat and a warm place to sleep, but she threw me out in the middle of a freezing night with no concern whether I had any place to go. She had pity on her dog, but for me there was absolutely nothing!

The church bells ceased, and the last echoes of caroling died away. By now my hat and coat were so wet I could have wrung them out and filled a bucket. I tried, but I couldn't stop shivering. I wondered if I would catch pneumonia. There were still several hours to go. I stood up, shifting my weight from foot to foot to keep the circulation going in my legs. I squatted down and stood up quickly several times, hoping the exercise might help. I yawned. I was beginning to get drowsy, but I fought off sleep. Even so, against my will, I found myself leaning against the wall, closing my eyes. Perhaps I did doze off, or else I simply grew numb. Who could avoid it? The minutes passed so slowly.

Suddenly I heard footsteps. Someone was coming. I peeked around the corner of the bin. It was too dark to see much, but I heard a dog whining. It was the old woman's dog. The old man was probably walking him. That was his job. The little dog was whining and pulling on the leash, leading the old man straight to the garbage bin. He must have recognized my scent and known I was there. The old fellow looked behind the bin to see what was bothering the dog and noticed me.

“Jesus Christ!” he exclaimed, crossing himself in surprise. “What are you doing here? Why in the world are you outside on a night like this?”

“Where else could I go?” I asked. It was very late when they threw me out. How was I supposed to find another
bed? The Germans would surely arrest me if they found me out on the street after curfew, so I hid behind the garbage bin to wait for morning.

“You poor child!” the old man sighed, shaking his head. He really was a decent sort. “I pleaded with my wife not to send you out, but you know how she is. Tonight was her big night, and she didn't want anyone else around. I tried my best to make her see reason, but you know I have nothing to say.” He felt bad and wanted to make it up to me in some way. “I'll tell you what. She's already in bed. She just sent me out to walk the dog. When I go back. I'll shut the door, but I won't lock it. You wait another hour until everything gets quiet. Then come inside. Your cot's still in the kitchen by the dog's bed. She didn't put it away. You can sit up the night out of the snow, but don't fall asleep. My wife gets up at the crack of dawn. You have to be out of the house by then, before it gets light. And remember to wipe your feet. I'll catch hell if she finds out I let you in.”

So that's what I did. I sat up on the cot in the kitchen for the last few hours before dawn, wet, exhausted, shivering, but at least out of the cold and snow. I didn't take off my coat. I barely moved. I kept awake by thinking of home—not the dreadful ghetto days, but the times before. I remembered the parties, the holidays, the summer outings to the woods and fields when my father taught me how to climb trees and jump over fences. I remembered my friends: our jokes and games; our long discussions; camping in the mountains; our future dreams. Where had it gone, my other life? Where were they now, all the people I knew and loved? Were they all gone? Was I the only one left? And what lay in store for me? Would this nightmare ever be over? Would this ghastly fugitive's life ever come to an end?

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Wolf
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