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BESHERT - It Was Meant To Be
Title “BESHERT - It Was Meant To Be”
Copyright ã Written in 1979 by Roma Talasowicz-Eibuszyc
“BESHERT - It Was Meant To Be” is now at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D C as part of their permanent collection.
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be used or reproduced with out written permission of the Author/Rights-Holder
Calabasas, Ca 91302
On the day of her death in 2006 I found a box containing the pages of my mother’s diary. In a thin, shaky handwriting she recalled heart-searing memories that began with being born a Jew in Warsaw in 1917. I proceeded to translate her story from Polish to English. I quickly realized how important it was that the stories of her life, as well as the lives of her family not perish with their deaths. I respectfully present my mother, Roma Talasiewicz’ memoir that she, and those whom she loved may continue to live.
JUNE 22, 1979
My daughtershave convinced me to write about my life. Painful though this will be, I have decided that they are right. I do this not so much to preserve my own story, but rather that my brothers and sisters will not have perished with their stories untold. I risk feeling again the tormented sleep on an open field with one, thin blanket between me and the sky. My stomach will again be gnawed away by the constant hunger. I will see the German planes over Warsaw and hear the explosions of bombs. Will those who read of my life be ready for the lice, the humiliation, and the never-ending fever and chills of Malaria? Will they understand that it is possible to lose ones mother two times? Should I describe the beatings that put Sevek at the edge of death, or the cold that seeped into my bones and never quite left? They tell me I am to ‘bear witness’, that I ‘have an obligation’. So be it. It was beshert, meant to be that I live the life I’ve had, and I suppose beshert that I now write what I remember:
We lived in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw where there were no bathrooms or running water inside our apartments. It was only later on in history that this neighborhood was termed a ghetto. Regardless of what it was called the poverty was all around me, and the reality was that in order to wash up or relieve myself, I had to use a large public bathroom that was in the courtyard of our building. I tried not to go there more often than absolutely necessary as the bathroom was dirty and scary as well. The containers where every family threw garbage were also right there in the courtyard. This lack of sanitation contributed greatly to the spread of tuberculoses, typhus and dysentery. By some miracle our family was spared these diseases. Yet there were many times in later years, as I slept in the cold of an open field, or when I last saw my brother the day he came back from Stalin’s Labor Camps, or when all the horrible events that overtook my family came about, it was then that I wondered. Might it have been better to have succumbed to these diseases and been spared what was to be our lives?
I am told that when I was born on April 16th, 1917 the people of Warsaw were plagued with hunger and typhus. Under German occupation, which would last for one more year, many
Polish citizens had been sent to forced labor camps, leaving behind the rest of us to starve. It was during this time also that Tsar Nicholas II was dethroned by his own people in Russia. In Poland there were revolutionaries who sympathized with the overthrowing of the Tsar, many of them were Jews. The dream in 1918 post war Poland was to somehow follow in the footsteps of Lenin’s ideology, where everyone would be equal. This dream appealed to the majority of Polish Jews who were poor, exploited, had little or no education, and lived in overcrowded tenement buildings. There were some wealthy business owners who were Polish Jews, but not many.
I was the sixth and last child born to Bina Symengauz and Pinkus Talasowicz. My parents named me Rajzla, although on the streets of Warsaw I was called by my Polish name, Roma. I am told that my father, like most men of our class and time worked two jobs to support us. Mother’s job, to raise her six children as best she could was even more difficult. Like all Jewish women of her class and generation she did not have a job outside ofthe home, instead she raised a large family.Mother came from a poor, religious family; her mother stayed home as well and raised eight children. Mother’s was the last generation to have many children and live like their parents before them
We lived in a tiny fourth floor apartment in an old tenement building on 54 Nowolipki Street. That apartment comes back to me in my dreams. I see the eight of us living in one room although in reality I could never have seen this; I was a one year-old baby, and the First WW had not yet ended when my thirty-six year old father died. It was a sudden death from something as simple as an ear infection. When I was older, I remember going with mother to the cemetery. A cut down tree trunk marked his grave.
I can not imagine how mother managed with no husband and six young children in a city ravaged by war where most everyone was struggling to survive. My oldest brother, Adek was twelve at the time father died. It was a blessing that the owner of the textile factory where father worked let Adek take father’s job. I am sure that it was thanks to that owner’s generosity that we survived that first year, as well as later on. My twin sisters Pola and Sala were eleven, and as hungry as we were Mother did not have the heart to send them off to work. That this was not the case with other parents says so much about my mother. Many children were sent to work at a younger age than twelve. My sister Andza and brother Sevek were seven and four, at the time of father’s death.
My first memories still haunts me to this day. I don’t know how old I was but I see myself with my brothers and sisters, hungry, cold and alone in our room waiting for Mother to return. It is not difficult, even now, to feel the gnawing hunger and the cold in my bones from that day. I sat on the edge of the narrow bed I shared with Mother and watched the door for hours, just waiting for her to come home. We didn’t know where she had gone but she had been gone all day. My fear that she was never coming home grew stronger as darkness descended. We were forbidden to light the kerosene lamp when we were alone. I remember how mother looked when the door opened. She was disheveled and out of breath as though she had been chased. She paused for a few seconds, walked over to me, and gave me the small piece of bread she clutched to her chest. I devoured it. Intellectually, rationally there is no reason to feel guilty today about turning away from my starving brothers and sisters. I know I was too young to be accountable. But in my heart, I ask myself over and over, how could I have eaten this piece of bread and not shared even a bite?
In 1919 when the twins turned twelve they went to work. They worked long hours for low wages and their efforts barely helped at home. In those days most employers took advantage of working children, so Pola and Sala were paid only a fraction of what adult workers earned. It seems that when father was alive, the family had managed in the tiny apartment. However, now my mother could no longer pay the rent. As unbelievable as it might sound today, she finally broke down and rented our kitchen to a couple who had one son. As the family grew, there were soon five people living in our kitchen.
Our family of seven lived in one room that was always dark, even in the daytime. The sun never reached our small window. I remember how I blew on the window to defrost it in the winter. I wanted so much to see what was going on outside. I guess it became a habit of sorts. Even today, I will sit for hours looking out my apartment window, watching life go by in the streets of New York.
At night, the one kerosene lamp lit my life. We had two beds, three chairs, a large table and a dresser. We slept two in a bed and at night mother unfolded an additional bed. Since we were seven, my older siblings took turns sleeping on a hay-stuffed mattress that mother placed on top of the table. This was the least comfortable place to sleep, but I can still remember the anticipation of stuffing the mattress with fresh hay that brought its sweet smell to our room. We did this every spring before Passover.
Regardless of how little money she had to feed us, mother secretly saved for the whole year to make sure we had a proper, religious Passover. She made sure we understood the importance of this holiday, and of celebrating the Exodus of our people from Egypt. Today, when I contemplate Mother saving like this, in view of the fact that on many days we had practically nothing to eat; I am struck by her devotion to her faith. Then too we barely saw her awake for the last six weeks before the holiday. Mother along with the other Jewish women in our neighborhood made matzoth (unleavened, crisp bread) by hand, all night in a bakery to earn a little money. I remember how we tiptoed around so she could sleep during the day. Those six weeks were difficult for all of us, but we understood and respected what Mother was doing.
Before Passover, as is the custom for generations, everything was washed and cleaned, and the night before we checked our room one last time to make sure not even a crumb of bread was overlooked. When I look back now, I realize how purely ritualistic this custom was. In reality we searched for a crumb in a one room apartment that barely had bread for more than a few minutes at any given time to begin with.
Passover began at sunset, and ended with a traditional Seder dinner (specially prepared meal) late into the night. Mother always put me to bed in the late afternoon for a long nap so I too could stay up late at night with the rest of the family. Aside from the religious part, and of course the extra food, I looked forward to Passover because it meant spring was coming. Spring meant I wouldn’t be cold all the time. Soon I would be breathing fresh, warm air. It also meant I would be allowed to leave our dark apartment, where the sun never reached and play with the other children in our courtyard. How I ran down those stairs! I’d step out into the courtyard and take a long, deep breath. I fill my lungs with spring air and turn my white face toward the sun, welcoming its warm rays.
I was small for my age, and very quiet. I was also sick a lot. The children loved to make fun of me although I didn’t know why. I was in such rapture being out there in the warm sun I had no idea my back was growing round from lack of vitamins, although I did know that I lived with almost constant hunger. I dreaded those times when, due to my poor diet my leg bones popped out of their joints. At first I’d cried for mother but after a while the pain in her face was even worse than the physical pain. Besides, there was nothing much she could do. Medical care was primitive and just about non-existent, and most of the families in our neighborhood would not have been able to afford medical help anyway. Yes, there were home remedies like using young onion shoots for skin infections. I don’t know how effective they were but even now, when I smell an onion I feel better.
When I was six years old my tongue erupted with an infection that no home remedy could cure. Mother used the last of her money to take me to a doctor’s assistant, a much less expensive way to get medical help. We came home with a liquid that was supposed to be put on my tongue every day. For some reason it was my older brother, Adek’s job to wrap a stick in cotton and cover my tongue with the awful medicine. I cried bitterly every time from the pain but after two weeks I was not only happy for myself, but for Adek too. He was so proud that my tongue was completely healed.
I was too young to remember when the war ended in 1918 but Mother described to me many times how wives with eyes and arms raised towards the sky begged God for the safe return of their husbands. Children too danced happily around their mothers waiting to be rejoined with their fathers. Mother put her hands over her face as she finished the war story. “Of course my husband was not coming home, she said with a stifled sob. “I had only the black earth that covered his body.” I understood at a very young age that her husband, our father was never coming home.
I often wonder, even now what it would be like to have and to be loved by a father. I never saw a photograph so I don’t know what my father looked like. I was told he was a tall, thin man who was a good husband and devoted father. One of nine children, also from a very religious but a well-off family, he worked in a textile factory. His other job was in the back room of a pharmacy which was considered, in those days an important job. I did know of his parents somewhat, especially my grandfather Gerson Talasiewicz, who was a well-known man in the Jewish community. He was a rabbi and a teacher who owned a private, traditional, Jewish school, otherwise known as a Cheder. To attend Grandfather’s Cheder, which accommodated about forty male students, for financial reasons one had to come from an affluent family. The Cheder was located on Stawki Street, which was across the street from where we lived. The school was situated on a nice piece of land and was surrounded by grass and a fence with a gate that was almost always locked. To the side of this property, stood a small house,the Cheder was on the ground floor; my grandparents lived above it with their one, spinster daughter. Grandfather was middle-aged, an intensely serious man, he wore traditional black clothes, and always walked with a fashionable walking stick. He was awell respected member of our community; I saw people bowing to him and stop him for advice. Grandfather was feared by his students and was known for disciplining them often. Before my father died, Adek was allowed to attend Grandfather’s Cheder for free. This was the only act of kindness we ever received from our father’s family.
There was that one summer morning when Mother sent me and the younger siblings to visit Grandfather. Mother didn't say it, but I understood that she was hoping that just once, Grandfather would be kind and give us something. I was too young to question why Grandfather was so indifferent to us, and even now I have this burning need to better understand the reason he had forsaken us. The truth is I always knew the answer. Deep in my heart there is the hurtful and shameful memory that I have kept buried for all these years.
I can still remember my mother telling me, with her head hanging low as if in shame how our affluent Grandfather never approved of his son’s marriage to her. At the time of their marriage, not only the Polish favored a class society. The Jewish community did as well. Although mother and father both came from very religious backgrounds, each came from a different socio-economic class. It was for this reason that my Grandfather never forgave his son for marrying beneath his class. Mother was a motherless girl from a poor family who was less educated than father’s. This marriage and the grandchildren, Grandfather never accepted. That Adek was allowed to go to Grandfather’s school for free, as I mentioned earlier, says that there must have been some acknowledgement when father was still alive. With father’s death whatever acceptance existed, ceased. I know now as I write this that Grandfather’s rejection and denial of me and my family was a trauma that I never put behind me. It haunts me even now.
Countless times I relive that day Mother sent us there. A very tall and wiry Grandfather opened the door. It happened so quickly we hardly had time to turn and run. As soon as he saw us he grabbed his walking stick, with which he always walked on the street and with it he proceeded to chase us away. We were so startled and shocked that all three of us tumbled down the stairs. There were tears and humiliation in Mother’s eyes when I told her what happened. She never sent us there again. Father’s family became as if strangers to us. Mother said it was just as well, that it was obvious that the man we called our Grandfather was not concerned with his son’s children’s welfare. Following my mother’s example, and as young as I was, my heart filled with humiliation that later turned to hate.
Mother, on the other hand came from a warm, kind family, of eight siblings. They visited us often and we remained close for twenty-two years. I never saw them give mother any material help but that doesn’t mean they didn’t. I do know they were there with the emotional support she needed. I was told that my grandmother died young. I knew my grandfather, who lived near us, was elderly and lived alone but mother never took me to visit him. She visited him often but always went alone. The only thing I ever found out was he never helped his daughter or grandchildren because he was very stingy. This didn’t make sense to me as the families around us all helped each other as best they could. At that time it was customary to keep saved money under a mattress instead of putting it in the bank. I often heard my mother worry out loud that one of her biggest fears was upon his death; the neighbors would be the first to get to her father’s money. The morning someone knocked on our door with the news of my grandfather’s death, I watched mother run to where Grandfather lived. By the time she got there the bag of money he kept under the mattress was gone.
JULY 4, 1979
It is the Fourth of July here in America. From the roof top of my apartment building I see the fireworks of these proud American people celebrating their independence. I wish there had been a cause for such celebration in Poland after the First WW, but all people had to show for was horrible casualties, and many losses. Polish casualties from First World War were horrific. Many men perished or came back home disabled. Our country’s spirits were broken and tired.
As a country Poland was broken. Trying to rebuild with help from America was a slow process. As a child, all I knew and cared about were the kitchens that were set up to feed us. Every day Adek took me to the one closest to where we lived. I would get a cup of milk and a piece of bread. America also opened orphanages for orphaned and abandoned children. Many children who weren’t orphans were sent to live there because their parents couldn’t care for them. Thankfully Mother never considered sending any of us there. One Friday night, as we sat around the table in the glow of the Shabbat candle, Mother looked down at the potato soup and then up at us. “Poor but always together, like a mother bird with its newborn babies in a nest,” she said. The warm feeling I got from her reassuring words are still with me today.
Yes, we were poor, but so were most of the other people in our neighborhood. Everyone was busy doing what they had to do in order to survive. Winter can be hard everywhere but in Warsaw winters were especially severe. To make matters worse, I wanted so much to go out and play, even in the cold but I didn’t have shoes. All I could do was work on defrosting the one window to look outside. This was not an easy task and eventually I had to give up. As winter progressed Mother had to cover the window and sealed the frame with rages to keep out the freezing draft.
Two times a week, usually on a Tuesday and always on Friday before Shabbat, Mother managed to burn a little coal in our stove. Coal was very costly and Mother could not afford to burn it every day. Its warmth was bliss. By Saturday morning some of the warmth was gone but since we were all expected to be home this added another kind of warmth. Mother observed a strict Shabbat. We were not allowed to do anything, not even read or write, and of course all foods were served cold. This was a hard day for us children, and as soon as we saw the first star, we said the Shabbat prayer and lit the kerosene lamp. After the prayer, Mother always managed to prepare a warm meal.
In the summertime things were easier; I could go down to the courtyard barefoot and play with other children. Some of them wore shoes; some were barefoot, like me. When I was six I got my first pair of shoes. That they were made of wood didn’t matter a bit. I remember that day as though it was yesterday. My older sister Sala went with me tobuy them. I walked home happy and proud, with my head held high. On the way home, I saw so many children without shoes turning their heads and looking at me with envy and it was then that I started feeling a little guilty in the midst of my own happiness.
I wore the clothes my sisters outgrew. I don’t remember ever getting new clothes although I did have two of everything. Mother washed one set while I wore the clean one. When my sister Andza (forth in line) turned twelve, Mother arranged for her to work as a seamstress. At that time, it was customary for a young person to work for free, like an apprentice. After the first few months, the apprentice would start getting some wages but they were usually very low.
I heard mother talking to the neighbor out side our apartment that first day after Andza left for work. “What can I do?” mother said. “I know how Andza is being taken advantage of but we need to eat.”
“The rich capitalist have no pity and take advantage of children, worst of all.” The neighbor added in agreement and walked away.
And so, at age twelve working for free became Andza’s reality although after a few months she was also bringing her wages home on Friday along with my other three working siblings. Everything was given to Mother. Life slowly started to get a little better. Hunger became a thing of the past. We began to eat meat at our traditional Shabbat dinner. My usual daily meal now consisted of soup, bread, herring and onions; we still could not afford fruits. When someone was sick Mother would buy a lemon to add to his or her tea, but otherwise fruits were for rich people. It was common to walk through the public gardens and see wealthy mothers encouraging loudly their children into eating their bananas and oranges. It always amazed me that I could watch these interactions and salivate even though I never knew the taste of those exotic fruits. Even today I will hold an orange and examine it as though it was some precious jewel before I eat it.
At this time many Jews outside of the city of Warsaw were farmers. They grew fresh vegetables and raised animals and fowl. Early in the morning, these farmers would arrive in the streets of Warsaw with everything from fresh milk, potatoes, peas, beans, onions, carrots, parsley, radishes, and cucumbers. This was the least expensive way for people to buy food, as long as one remembered to boil the milk. Many cows were sick with tuberculosis.
Most of the families on Nowolipki Street were just like us, poor, working class, Jews. Polish people lived in separate neighborhoods and were already anti–Semitic. Polish laws were anti–Semitic toward Jews as well. Most jobs were off limits to our people. Jews could not work in any government jobs or teach school beyond the elementary level. We were only allowed to do jobs in retail or in a trade. For most part we were shopkeepers, bakers, shoemakers, painters, barbers and tailors.
Polish people did live toward the end of our street, but we knew from a very early age not to there. If one was foolish enough, or careless enough to be where he was not supposed to be, it was not unusual to be beaten up or pelted with rocks.
Our street was long and narrow but we did have a few small grocery stores, two bakeries and a dairy store. When things got better for us financially, in the morning one of us would run out to the bakery for fresh kaiser, onion or caraway seed rolls. Crisp bagels, with a crust that crackled when I bit into them, were my favorite. In the evening men came around from courtyard to courtyard with baskets full of fresh, hot bagels. They were braided and baked in a special way. On better days we ate them with butter. Even now I can still taste that warm buttery delight.
By law, stores in Poland had to close at seven in the evening, but every store had a back door. This setup allowed many stores to stay open longer for people who needed to shop after work. The police knew about this back door shopping and walked around enforcing the law giving summons to the shop owners. However, a small money bribe could keep the police away for a few weeks.
The sanitation people paid visits as well. There were high penalties if things were not clean and orderly. With the crowded living quarters we all lived in, it was difficult to pass these inspections. Apartment owners had to answer to the sanitation officials, and in our neighborhood those owners were Jewish. As if the penalty was not enough, the word ‘Jew’ was used frequently along with it. As young as I was, I still remember that for even for smallest offense I heard the officials in the courtyard sneer, “Jews go to Palestine”.
My childhood memories were joyful at times, but depressing too. I guess everyone has happy and sad childhood memories but somehow my younger years were filled with very dramatic ups and downs, and so clear they can still move me to tears or make me smile.
The building we lived in, its courtyard where I was able to hold my face up to the warmth of the sun after a bone-chilling winter was a blessing. It was also a prison of sorts as well. Like all the other tenement buildings in our neighborhood we had a watchman-janitor who lived on the ground floor. He was the only gentile living in the building which was a necessity because he would light the fires in the stoves on Sabbath. Of course, as Jews, after sundown we could not do most things during Sabbath. Pan Juzek was a cranky old man who lived alone in a tiny room off the main entrance to our building. We usually tip-toed past his door, not out of respect but rather, because all us children feared his terrible temper. I remember hearing some of the adults comment that Pan Juzek was lucky he had a job and especially one that earned him extra for lighting the fires. Even at my young age I realized his job of cleaning the courtyard with its horrible toilets, and the piles of smelly garbage would make anyone nasty.
Aside from taking care of the grounds, Pan Juzek was responsible for locking the front gate at exactly ten o’clock every night. It was also at this time that we were expected to put out all kerosene lights. I lived in dread of the pitch black hallway and staircase outside our apartment. If anyone needed to go out after ten, a candle and matches were an absolute necessity. The gate had a bell that was connected to Pan Juzek’s room. Sometimes after 10:00 PM I would hear the bell ring. I waited to hear the squeak of the wooden gate, and the grumbling voice yelling curse words I did not understand. With all his carrying on at least I knew he had come with the key. I couldn’t understand why Pan Juzek had this job if he hated us so much. Mother smiled sadly when I asked her.
“He doesn’t really hate us,” she said. “Maybe he had a little too much to drink, and said something he didn’t mean.”
“I think I will not drink when I get older,” I responded. “I don’t want to hate anyone.” There were times when I fell asleep waiting to hear the gate open like the night when
my sister was in agony from an ear infection. I know it was after ten as I watched mother leave to get some medicine. She lit her candle in the door way and disappeared into the black. I heard the heavy wooden doors creak as I fell asleep. I had no way of knowing how long it took for mother to get back. I did know she did not have the few groszy to give Pan Juzek to compensate him for getting up at that ungodly hour. I had a nightmare that night. My mother was screaming and shaking the gate to come back to me, and no one was in sight to let her back in.
As I got older I came to realize that we were not prisoners but rather that we were being protected by Pan Juzek. Being imprisoned and being protected became a big, confusing issue for me later on as I fled from one place to another. Our whereabouts were always based on what others in authority said. Sometimes it was said that we were being protected when we were really in prison. But I am getting ahead of myself.
To make the nights even more treacherous, our neighborhood streets were over-run with wild, hungry dogs, who lived on the rare scraps and bones they found. It was not uncommon to trip on a cat lurking on the stairs. They too were wild and starved to the point where their hunger overtook their gentle nature. Pouncing up in the dark they would scratch and bite at anyone. Rats and mice lived between the walls and the floors. At night they came out looking for any crumbs they could find. I became obsessed from an early age with keeping my blankets up high on my bed as the horrible little demons scraped across our wooden floor.
After the war people did whatever they could to survive. It was not uncommon for Jews to go begging from house to house. Some would play the accordion and sing beautiful Yiddish songs in the courtyards to make five Groszy to buy a piece of bread.
People like my mothers, who were also poor, still managed to give something. I remember my pride as I watched mother search through the cupboard for something to give an especially hungry looking beggar who had his little boy with him. She sent me down with two small pieces of matzoth left over from Passover. I will never forget the sadness, and the shame in that little boy’s eyes.
During the war schooling was put on hold for most children. After the war, thousands of children needed to catch up, and of course there were also a lot of youngsters just starting their educations. Poland was ruined and the strain on its resources was enormous. So many Polish schools were destroyed there wasn’t enough place for half of the school-aged children in Warsaw. Schools were being rebuilt but construction was slow. Private schools always had room but only wealthy families could afford to send their children there.
Those who were turned away from the public schools could only hope that next year would be different. In 1924, my brother Sevek and I tried unsuccessfully to register for the third and the first grade, respectively. He was ten and I was seven.
Mother decided to send Sevek to a Jewish school as he was getting older and needed to get an education as soon as possible. It was a difficult decision for her as she would have to pay for this school. However, she found one where she paid only what she could afford.
On the first morning, mother left wearing her most determined face. She marched to the Jewish school with Sevek and registered him. She looked happier when she returned. I guess she didn’t realize that Sevek would be learning Polish even though he was in a Jewish school.
I remember my mixed feelings the first day I watched Sevek go to school, leaving me behind. I was happy for him but felt so sorry for myself. I wanted so much to go with him, not that I would dare complain. The Jewish school he went to did allow girls but I knew mother did not have to money to send us both there.
I started waiting in the courtyard every afternoon for Sevek to come home from school. I would grab his books and be honored just to carry them upstairs for him. I also copied everything he did for homework. It didn’t take long for me to learn the Polish alphabet. All of my siblings were at work and Sevek was at school, so after the alphabet, I had plenty of time to move on to reading from his Polish schoolbooks. As the months went by, my pride washed away all the sadness.
One night Sevek was looking over my shoulder as I copied his work. “See, little sister,” he said. “You are not missing out at all.”
A year later the construction of a beautiful, modern elementary school was completed right there in our neighborhood. It had playgrounds on each side, and even a bathhouse for the students. A small house in the rear was supposed to be for a caretaker. My friends and I hoped the caretaker would be nicer than Pan Juzek. This was fairy tale school, complete with newly planted trees and flowers. I made up my mind, after standing there once again to stare at this breathtaking building that I would get into that school at the beginning of the school year no matter what I had to do.
It was still dark when mother and I left the apartment that morning to register at my fairy tale school. My heart dropped when I saw there was already a long line of mothers and children. I watched silently, with tears rolling down my cheeks as the front door of the school opened and closed, opened and closed, each time letting in only a few children. Each time I looked up at mother. She smiled down at me and patted my shoulder in a way that said they would never get to me.
We had been on line for about two hours when something happened that I considered a miracle. My eyes were set on the window of the registration room when suddenly a man inside,
dressed in a suit walked to the window and opened it wide. I didn’t hesitate for more a few seconds. A Jewish woman, who I knew was a teacher saw me and looked away as I quickly and quietly climbed in the low window. I took my place in front of the big desk where children were obviously registering. Registration still took a long time, the rest of the morning to be sure. At one point I was asked to come back with my mother. The Jewish teacher stepped forward and said she knew me well and that there was no need to call my mother. I will never forget the amazement and joy in mother’s face as I came out with my registration papers for second grade.
On September 1, 1925 I started a life in school that was to become a memory of my happiest childhood days. I walked proudly with all the other children from my street wearing the same navy blue dress with the white collar as the other girls. The boys looked so handsome in their dark slacks and white shirts. It wasn’t until I got to my assigned class that I realized that the boys and girls were together in all the classes.
There was a school library where I could check out any book I wanted. I loved to read and so I used this privilege more than anyone I knew. I soon came to see that not only was I a good student but that I seemed to learn everything that was presented quickly and with no difficulty. As most of our families did not have the money to buy expensive books, the mothers in our building worked out a way to buy a book that we could then share. I studied with my classmates who lived in my building or on my street, and this way we all helped each other and we all excelled in school.
There I was in second grade and already memorizing Polish poetry and short stories. The standards at the school were very high. The lowest score in any subject was a 2. At the end of the school year, anyone with two of these low scores had to repeat the grade again. I didn’t have to worry about such things. My grades were always the highest in the class.
During recess in the summer we played outside in the sun, dancing in a circle and singing. In the winter we also went outdoors sometimes even for an hour although it was cold. We were allowed to throw snowballs and rolled in laughter. Sometimes we actually threw snowballs at our teacher, because we liked her so much although we did always stop when she asked us to.
We had a gym where we went two times a week in black shorts and white tee shirts to climb ladders and jump on trampolines. The school did not have a cafeteria so we ate breakfast during the twenty-minute morning recess and eventually in our classrooms.
I graduated at the top of my second grade class and marched home with a diploma in hand and a wide grin on my face. I knew that some children had not passed. I saw them crying bitterly when they learned they had to stay another year in the same grade.
For the first sixteen years of my life, I never left the city of Warsaw. During the summer break wealthy children went away with their families to such places as Falenica, Michalin and Otwock. They all came back suntanned and rested. As mother could not afford such things, I stayed behind and played with the other poor kids on the street, or in the courtyard. I lived every day with the anticipation of being back in school in September.
At home daily life was getting easier. Four out of the six of us were working by 1925. Mother took care of the house. I loved going with her to shop on Fridays to an open market where food was fresh and less expensive. She made our room as comfortable as she could, and we continued to observe a strict Sabbath.
Although Mother observed a strict Shabbat and we celebrated all the other Jewish holidays’ with much respect and pride, we wore normal western-European clothing. At this time Warsaw was the home to many acculturated Jews who dressed and looked like Polish nationals. The majority of Jews, however, remained Yiddish speaking, orthodox, and dressed according to traditional laws.
Every Friday, Adek, my oldest brother would bring out a book of Jewish songs. After dinner we would gather around mother and sing. As I see us all now, I realize in our limited way that we were creating a warm and joyous atmosphere for the mother we loved beyond words.
Every season brings something different to life, but to my family on Nowolipki Street the seasons gave meaning to our colorless existence. Spring brought life with its green grass and budding trees. Flowers started to bloom in hues we saw no where else. I thought May was the most beautiful month of all, with the non-stop chirping of birds and fragrance of lilac in the air. On Sunday mornings in spring and in summer my family carried blankets and a basket of food to the nearby Praga woods. We filled our lungs with fresh air after a week of work and school. Summers in Warsaw were as hot as the winters were cold. To keep our food from spoiling, we kept it in a large container together with a block if ice.
Polish law caused problems for the Jewish economy. The typical workweek in Poland was six days—Jew or Gentile. The Poles, like the Jews, were strict in their Sabbath observance. However, Polish Sabbath is Sunday. Sunday is the first day of Jewish workweek, but by Polish law, everything had to be closed on Sunday. Since the Jewish economy would have a hard time surviving on a five-day workweek, most Jews secretly worked on Sunday.
Even when I was a child Warsaw was already terribly overpopulated. People came to the city from smaller towns in search of work. Those who already lived in Warsaw would make room in their own living space for a bed and rent it for 15.00 zloty a month. By being very creative they made a little extra money to survive. Many people also lived in basements or in attics where rents were also cheaper. Although these basements and attics were not pleasant the people who rented them worked so hard, sometimes with seasonal jobs, worked from sun up until midnight that it hardly mattered where they slept. The goal for these seasonal workers was to make enough money for when season ended. Yet with all the poverty, overcrowded living conditions, and grueling work, people somehow remembered to be warm and brotherly toward one another. When someone was sick and a doctor was called to a very poor home, most often he did not accept any money. Day or night, rain or shine, our own neighborhood doctor came whenever we needed him. I remember his kindly face and the huge form that filled the doorway. Dr. Szolemski always wore a suit no matter what the weather or time. I always thought of his small black bag as magical. It seemed to have everything that was called for.
Every Saturday after services at the synagogue volunteers went from courtyard to courtyard with large baskets. They asked for donations for the Jewish hospital. People gave them eggs, butter, milk, bread, cooked meat, whatever they could spare. Our Jewish community had a big heart even in hard times.
After the war, immune systems were weakened from the deprivation. A shortage of nutritious food, living in crowded rooms with windows tightly closed during the cold winter months all added to the eventual tuberculosis epidemic. Out of control through out Poland, this devastating disease claimed entire families. As there was no treatment at the time, prevention was the only cure. I remembered hearing Mrs. Meir upstairs crying and begging God, unsuccessfully to save her son. Even Dr. Szolemski was helpless.
At school we had to obey strict medical regulations. Our teachers kept the classrooms clean and made us scrub our hands before eating. Every recess, regardless of weather, all the students had to leave the building at which time the large windows were opened wide to let in fresh air. A hygienist would come weekly to check us for cleanliness, and especially with regard to our hair. All of Poland had a huge problem with lice. The treatment for the unlucky child was to have his or her hair cut very short and the scalp saturated with kerosene. I remember that Sevek was the unlucky one in our family. I can still hear him cry as the cloth saturated in kerosene was then rubbed on his scalp and proceeded to burn his skin and the sores from the bites.
One day, a classmate invited me to her home to do homework together. Without much thought, I went. The homework took us a few hours, and during that time, my mother became worried and went to school looking for me. The caretaker told her that all the children were gone. She went into the streets looking for me, and when I finally headed home, I saw her pacing our street. I ran toward her, the only thing she managed to say to me was “Where were you” as tears rolled down her face. I never meant to worry her and I promised myself that I would never make her worry like this again.
As I got older I came to realize the torment she must have gone through when I went missing. Even today as I am writing down this episode from so long ago, I can still see my mother’s face behind a stream of tears. It was not uncommon at our school, for the Jewish children to be taunted and sometimes even be beaten up by non-Jewish children. My mother must have thought something terrible had happened to me. I had seen and heard the signs of anti-Semitism but that day it never occurred to me that I could become a victim.
I loved my mother very much; I was never a difficult child. I helped her in whatever way I could; I often went to buy wood or coal for her. I was the quiet child at home, as well as at school. I never expected or demanded anything from her. I never complained that I had to do without so many things. I understood our situation. Instead, I helped myself and made the best of my circumstances. At home my two brothers and three sisters and I lived in harmony. My mother was proud of us.
Time went by. Days, weeks and months passed smoothly. We finally relaxed and allowed ourselves to think the sun was shining for us, even if we were still in that gray, fourth floor room. A ray of warm sunshine, along with a fervent hope entered our lives. We came to believe there was indeed a bright future ahead.
AUGUST 18, 1979
I try to be brave as I age. The young doctor I saw today smiles and pats me on the shoulder. As I watched him write the prescription for a new arthritis medication, I thought about the words I used minutes before to impress him with my discomfort. It amazes me when I consider, with all I have been through that my minor ailments now take on such proportions.
It is night. I sit by the window waiting for the pills to take effect and I think of my mother and her pain, and her bravery.
My mother started going through menopause when I was ten, although at the time I knew not of such things. I did realize she was going to the doctor almost every week. All she said was that her left hand hurt. My mother, who was usually so calm and in control, seemed to be suddenly nervous and anxious almost about everything.
I remember that Friday, so many years ago when the dark cloud descended on our little family. I was going with mother, as I usually did after school to the open market to do our big shopping for the week. It is difficult to explain but she looked different that afternoon. I told her that my teacher made an example of my homework in Polish class again today and she nodded and looked away as though she had barely heard me. Her face was pale and drawn as she waited for me to finish my afternoon snack of tea and a slice of bread and butter. Sometimes I think that if I had said something, anything about my concern that day I might have been able to change the course of events that were to follow. That is the emotional me talking. The intellectual part of me says that a ten year old girl could not have offered to go to the busy market alone, or even had enough courage to suggest we stay home.
That Friday she did not rush through the aisles, grabbing the vegetables and smelling the fresh produce she usually did. She walked slowly, as if in another world, haphazardly put things in our baskets with little interest. As we walked back home I remember thinking, for no real reason other than a sense of gloom, that I might never do this with my mother again.
As soon as we got home mother lay down and fell asleep. As this was the beginning of Shabbat we didn’t know what to think. We lit a candle at sundown and ate whatever was available without cooking. We waited in vain for mother to wake up.
The next morning mother’s left hand and leg were paralyzed. Adek ran to bring a doctor. He came, quickly examined her and said that a vein had burst in mother’s brain. Mother had suffered a stroke. She was unconscious when the ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital. The doctor was still with us as we watched the stretcher slide into the ambulance. The kindly doctor’s face was so serious. I can still hear his words as another great tragedy made its way into our lives again. “There is nothing I can do for your mother.”
As mother was considered to be in critical condition, the Jewish Hospital allowed one of us to be with her every day in the afternoon. From early morning until after lunch, the doctors made their rounds. Some of them were Jewish, some were not but I thought I could see the sympathy in all their eyes when they looked at my relatively young mother and then at us. Since families of the critically ill could visit, Andza left work early every day to take care of mother at the hospital. On Sundays the six of us stood around her bed helplessly. She just lay there, unable to move. All I could do was hold her hand and cry.
Our precious little home, our lives fell apart. We stopped smiling. Most times we each sat in our own corner with our heads down. The only sound was that of muffled sobs. It was summer but in the overwhelmingly sudden situation I was cold all the time. We were soon disheveled-looking. For two weeks we ate only bread and drank tea. I know that we were all secretly hoping that mother’s health would improve. We were waiting for a miracle. Not only did the miracle not come, but mother’s condition got worse. From being immobile and on her back she developed open wounds, and because she was not able to call for help, some nights she lay in her own urine. Although the hospital did not have enough staff, they were strict about not letting families come in to help at night. When he realized that her constant moaning was the result of the pain from her open wounds, Adek made the decision to bring mother home.
The ambulance people carried mother up the steps on a stretcher. Although her overall condition was the same, with no movement or words, her presence, in our home eased my heart, at least for a while.
Our immediate concern was to heal mother’s infected bedsores. Adek bought a large rubber tube that mother could lay on so that her sores would be exposed to the air. Andza washed the sores daily and dried them with powder. After three weeks mother’s sores healed, and I was able to breath again.
Andza, who was sixteen years old then quit her job and stayed home to spoon-feed mother three times a day and give her the medicines that kept her alive. The money my other siblings were earning went to keeping mother comfortable and to buy those precious pills. The doctor put mother on a special diet because everything she ate had to be easily digested. She was allowed only bread that was made with eggs and milk, fresh milk and kefir. For the first time there were bananas and oranges in our room. She also had to drink special herbal teas that could only be purchased at a pharmacy.
It didn’t take long for my little ten-year- old mind to register that I no longer had a mother. I can not put into words what an earth-shattering loss I suffered with this realization. Although mother was physically there in the bed, and as I had to take care of myself in all ways, I soon came to see that I had lost my mother. My brothers and sisters could not replace her. They could not give me the motherly love I craved. Most girls have a special bond with their mothers; mine was beyond special, and it was broken abruptly and forever. I wanted so much to have her hug me just once, to say a few words of comfort. Over and over I sat on her bed, kissed her and begged her to talk to me. She didn’t say a word.
We were poor again although a doctor was sent from the hospital for free to examine mother every week. Dr. Kozlowski was a tall, Polish army doctor. All the neighbors were frightened as he walked through the courtyard dressed in his uniform. A long sword, shining like silver hung from his side. Dr. Kozlowski was a compassionate man. My brother heard that he worked at the Jewish hospital because he had a heart. Each time he’d look at mother on her bed, then at the rest of us gathered at the other end of the room, he’d say, “I really want to save your mother, but there is nothing I can do. There are no medications to reverse her condition.”
Taking care of mother left Andza totally overwhelmed. The job was so exhausting for her she could do nothing else. Everything around us was neglected. As cooking and washing properly were out of the question, I was dirty and hungry most of the time.
It was Adek who made the next big decision. Pola, who was twenty years old, would now take care of mother and the chores. Andza went back to work. It was a smart decision as it was immediately apparent that Pola was better equipped for the job. She was able to take care of mother, cook for all of us, do the washing and keep the room clean. My job was to help Pola after school. I washed dishes, took out the garbage and washed clothes; I did everything that Pola asked me to do.
At home my life and future seemed dark and hopeless. It was only during school hours that I found myself able to escape my awful reality. As a result I always was at the top of my class even with mother lying silent and paralyzed back in our room. I learned without having my own books. I borrowed what I needed from my classmates. I didn’t even have a schoolbag for my notebooks. One day Andza who was a seamstress greeted me after school with one she made for me out of fabric. It was a wonderful surprise; a colorful bag to carry my notebooks, dry roll and the five groszy I needed to buy a sour pickle.
Dinner at home consisted of soup with an occasional piece of meat. Pola divided the meat among my older, working siblings. I got the bone. I remember licking that bone and trying to feel grateful. I never did ask for anything more. I never complained. I chose to be happy with what I had.
At home, things did not change for four years. Our siblings worked from early morning till late at night while Pola and I took care of mother and the house chores. Every day I came home right after school so we could get ready to work on getting mother to sit up in her bed. My job was to lie behind her, up against her back to support her upright position. Two years into Mother’s illness Adek did finally manage to get a padded chair somewhere. We never asked questions. Every afternoon Pola and I carried our mother from the bed to the chair and back. Mother never regained her speech. There were moments when she seemed conscious but most times she was like an infant, especially after she suffered a second stroke, and then a third one.
Mother died on a Thursday in May. I was fourteen years old. My brothers and sisters did not go to work the day before. We did not sleep that night. My brother went to get the doctor who gave mother her one last injection. Adek sat at her bedside the whole night while the rest of us sat in a corner of the room.
It was five o’clock in the morning. The door to our room was open. The kerosene lamp threw threatening shadows on the walls behind mother’s bed. I held my breath as strange black cat with blue eyes slinked into the room and ran under mother’s bed. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. It was at just that moment that mother closed her eyes and stopped breathing. She died in Adek’s arms.
I was the only one who saw the black cat. It was not my imagination. My mind shut down as soon as I realized that mother had just died and I never told anyone what I saw. I was sure no one would believe me. However, even now I can see that onerous sign as vividly as if it happened yesterday. I know in my heart that it was really the angel of death, in another form come to take my mother.
Once again unbelievable grief overwhelmed us. According to the Jewish tradition mother’s body was laid on the floor with her feet toward the door. Since it was Friday, we had until twelve noon to make the funeral arrangements. Adek took care of everything. All I remember is that I cried and cried, and that a woman came to our room to sew a white cotton burial shroud. During the two hours that it took her, she talked to us about how G-d gives and
How G-d takes. She said, “G-d comes and you have to go to a place where you forever rest”. She also said, “Children, don’t cry, soon a messiah will come, riding on a white horse and all the dead will come to life.” Her attempts at reassuring us did not work at all. While we were, of course, in the midst of a terrible, personal tragedy, we had also grown somewhat more secular in the four years mother had been ill. We certainly listened. What the woman had to say surely reflected the strong faith that most people still had back in those days.
The images of mother’s funeral will be etched in my mind forever. Before twelve noon on that dark Friday in May, we all came downstairs, single-file and dressed in black. Mother’s totally covered body was placed in a black wooden casket. The wagon waiting for us in the courtyard was covered in black fabric. There was an opening in the back for the casket. The two horses pulling the wagon were also covered in black. Only their eyes were visible. My two brothers were the first to walk in the procession behind the wagon. After them was Sala who was being supported by her closest friends. Then, came Andza also supported by her friends. Our next-door neighbor walked on Pola’s side and I walked on her other side, holding my sister’s hand.
Mother’s brother and his children came to the funeral, as did mother’s sisters and their children. They had in fact come from time to time when mother was sick, bringing food and trying to comfort us. The truth was that I was in such misery that it must have been impossible for them to help me. I can hardly remember those times. I also know it must be difficult to picture today to those reading this, but the heaviness, the hopelessness in our room was such that people, even mother’s family came and went like shadows. There was nothing anyone could do. They left as quickly as they could while maintaining good manners.
We walked for forty-five minutes to the cemetery. The horses pulled the wagon slowly while funeral workers dressed in black walked on each side. Everyone was praying as we moved along. Once we got there mother was to be washed and dressed in a special building. Here we had to wait depending on how many other people were being buried on that day.
It took two hours for mother’s body to be prepared. She was dressed all in white, including white stockings and white cotton shoes. Her eyes were covered with small ceramic pieces. The grave was lined with wooden planks since the body was buried, according to Jewish tradition without a casket. Covered with the white shroud that had been sewed for her earlier that day, Mother was lowered into the ground, Kaddish, the prayer for the dead was said over her grave.
There are still deep, raw wounds in my heart since that day. It is hard for me to write about my mother’s burial. Even now, some fifty years later, the pen falls from my hand as I break down and cry once more. I must stop writing for today.
Today I am back to writing but my thoughts are scattered. I need to grab hold of them but it is difficult. Yesterday I touched on deep feelings and emotions that I kept hidden away for a very long time. It is a good thing that paper has patience, and will wait.
For the second time in my young life, black dirt covered my parent forever. On the trip back home all I could think about was that I would find mother still in her bed, that it would not be empty. After four years of caring for her, there was no longer anyone to take care of. It was a drastic transformation for which none of us was prepared. We did not eat that day. My three sisters and I climbed into one bed and stayed like that, mourning in sobs throughout Saturday. Thankfully our brothers fared a little better than we did. They took turns taking care of us, forcing us to at least drink some tea. When Sunday arrived, again according to the Jewish tradition, we started to sit Shiva. Shiva meant sitting on low stools or in a crouching position for a whole week. Mirrors were covered. The only light in our room that week came from a candle. Family and neighbors came to pay their respects, and left.
After that tragic week passed, my two brothers and two sisters went back to work. I went back to school and Pola stayed home and took care of us. A few weeks later I graduated from public school. The year was 1931 and I was fourteen years old. My classmates came to school on that last day with their parents. I came alone. My siblings didn’t want to miss any more work and risk losing their jobs. Pola rarely ventured out to public places. After six years of school and one year of being home-schooled [during the first grade], I graduated with a diploma and some small amount of satisfaction, but that graduation day remained forever one of the saddest days in my life. At the end of the ceremony I stood proudly with my graduating class as we recited this poem:
“Life goes by quickly, like a stream runs the time,
In a year, in a day, in a minute, together we’ll be no more,
And our young years went by quickly into the past,
In our hears will remain a sadness, a void and an absence,
This is the last day of school; we will face many different roads,
Into the world we will go, taking our future into our hands”.
Now my life veered into a totally different direction. What I had dreamed of throughout my childhood was suddenly unattainable. I had to get a job.
It was difficult to find a job in Warsaw in 1931. People got up as early as four o’clock to get the morning paper and look in the classified section for employment. At times as many as a hundred people applied for one position. Sometimes after a few days a newly hired worker was fired for no reason. Reasons were not needed. The ugly truth at that time was that working people had no rights. Rights seemed to belong only to rich capitalists.
After mother’s death, our living situation remained the same. We were determined to stay together. As a matter of fact, we felt it was necessary for our very survival. Adek bought a spindle machine for Pola and me and we started working at home. Our job was to spin wool onto large spools. The owner of the factory where Adek and Sala worked since they were twelve years old, gave us this wool. Spinning wool onto spools was seasonal work so Pola and I did our best to work from early morning till late at night, sometimes till two or three in the morning. We knew the need for this type of work lasted for only a few months and we wanted to make as much money as possible before it was too late. We needed to save this money for a time when work was not available as there were no benefits for us, or the other workers. When the season for wool ended we substituted silk thread for wool thereby making the season last a little longer.
Beside my work at home, I carried dinner to the factory where Adek and Sala worked. It broke my heart to watch how hard they worked in that small clothing factory. Pola continued with all the cooking and the house chores. Working with wool was difficult. Soon everything in our room was covered with a layer of white wool dust. We did manage to make good money, and so we persevered.
Over time, our situation at home improved even though mother’s death still haunted our minds. I believe I was affected the most. Looking back I see myself as a new flower with my petals just opening when a devastating storm suddenly brakes the stem. I took orders from Pola who was very strict and demanding. I did what ever she told me to do and never once objected to her commands. This was my life and this was how it had to be. There is no doubt that our lives were a constant battle. All of us were fighting, struggling to just survive in the best way we could.
I don’t know exactly when the realization came about but in any case it was suddenly clear. My destiny was to live a difficult existence. Acceptance became my way of surviving in a world where hours and days slipped away without notice. My older siblings and especially Pola now made all the decisions about my life.
For my work I didn’t even get spending money and for some reason I didn’t
dare ask. In the meantime I watched, as Pola went about doing strange things for those outside our immediate family. At first it had to do with our uncle Motel who was mother’s youngest brother. Motel, who came to visit us during mother’s illness and often after she died was a divorced man with three school-age-children. He lived in the Polish section of Warsaw, owned a factory and a store selling fashionable ladies hats on Zamenhofa 14 Street.
He bragged about how he took care of his children, how he cooked, washed and cleaned his home by himself.
Motel came to our room every Sunday and Pola proceeded to serve him the nicest dinner. As I said, this went on for many years from the time of my mother’s illness and after her death. During those times my dinner consisted of a bone instead of meat. I remember the many times I would be playing out in the courtyard when I saw my uncle running, not walking to our building. The first time, I thought that something must be terribly wrong. I waited a few minutes and went upstairs. To my surprise nothing terrible had happened at all. There was Pola bending over Motel to serve him an ample fish dinner. There was chicken soup with noodles, compote and tea. My uncle was actually smacking his lips. Thirty minutes later he thanked Pola and said he needed to get back to his children. This routine went on for years. I never said a word but the resentment built inside me. How Pola could be treating Motel this way when the six of us just barely got by and especially hen there were still many nights I went to bed hungry. My siblings were at work when Motel came to dinner. They had no idea this was happening. I started to wonder if perhaps our Uncle’s dinner was served with just my sibling’s schedules in mind. I felt even worse when Pola occasionally invited not just Motel but her friends as well. She fed them, gave them shelter, and always for free. On the one hand I heard the others say Pola had a very big heart and was good at giving to others. On the other hand, this did not make sense to me at all. There was no one to turn to, to talk to. In my misery I resigned myself to the way things were.
I must have been almost sixteen when I suddenly realized that even my poorest friends had some coins in their pockets, even if only for a small treat. Later as I looked back with some maturity, I saw there was something else operating in my sad, motherless life. That something was so alien, so covered up it took years for me to accept that mother had protected me, even from my own siblings. Education, as I noted earlier, was everything to mother and then to me. Sevek did go to school until he was thirteen. As soon as mother got sick he had to leave his education behind. I was able to stay in school the longest and got the education none of my siblings got. I wish I could say they were proud of me but in truth they did not understand. I felt they were even resentful when they saw me reading a book. There was a jealousy that seemed to be bound together with the resentment; all this made my life miserable. From time-to-time I was given an old dress, a coat, or a worn down pair of shoes. I was trapped in a depressing situation that held no hope for a better future.
SEPTEMBER I, 1979
My grandchild comes to visit today. He is an unusual child. I find it amusing that he would rather talk to me than watch television. Today he tells me he is reading fairytales in his school. He asks if I remember any from when I was a child in Poland. I quickly see that it is probably just the gnomes in the Maria Konopnicka story I tell him that fascinate him so. As I go along I try to add the important revelations that I discovered many years ago from this fairytale, my childhood favorite. I wonder, as I watch his innocent face if children today are aware of the beauty around them, of the compassion they are capable of giving to others. I want to tell my grandson this is one of the stories that helped me to survive, but I do not tell him. He would not understand.
My mind is suddenly flooded with the turn of events that led me to this fairy tale and the revelations that followed.
I remember it was just about a year after my mother died, that a doctor was again visiting 54 Nowolipki Street. This time is was for Sevek. My brother was only eighteen years old when he started showing signs of a weak heart. Sevek was very content with his job as a tanner in a leather workshop but because it was physically demanding, he had to stop working.
I was devastated by my brother’s illness although when I look back now, some interesting things occurred as a result. For one thing we had the good fortune of having Dr. Pupko bring light and hope into our home. I believed then in my heart, and I still do today that anything good that happened to my family was because of the generosity shown by Mr. and Mrs. Rotband. They owned the factory where Adek worked and would later welcome him into their family through marriage. I know, even without being told that it was the Rotbands who managed to get Dr. Pupko to see Sevek. This was only one of the many compassionate things they did for us. My mind immediately goes back to September 1939 during the never-ending bombings in Warsaw. Once again this couple opened their hearts to us. Along with the Rotbands thirteen of us huddled in their apartment. But this story will have to wait.
An older, Jewish physician, Dr. Pupko normally saw patients either at his home or at a hospital. I remember the day I was in the courtyard throwing out the garbage when the very short, thin man stepped gingerly out of a horse-drawn carriage. He tipped his hat to me and rushed into the building.
Dr. Pupko was a religious man who came from a very poor family. We tried so many times but he would not accept any payment from us. He seemed happy enough to drink the tea Pola served him, and spend a few minutes to sit and talk about his life. We learned he had been the only Jewish student in a Polish Medical School, and because of poverty, had to make enormous sacrifices, to study medicine. He said it was a never-ceasing need to help the sick and unfortunate people around him that gave him the strength to persevere. Now a famous doctor in all of Warsaw, even revered by his Polish colleagues, Dr. Pupko lived a very simple life dedicated to medicine. Once in a moment of humor I asked the aging doctor if it was true that he had never married. Dr. Pupko smiled sadly. He said being a doctor was the most important thing to him; that it wouldn’t be fair the way he lived to have a wife or children.
He spoke with such passion, with such honesty that I would inevitably be filled with hope when he left. Dr. Pupko tried to convince us that we should not worry. He actually promised that, given time Sevek would get better. I guess he sensed our doubt because after a few visits he confided that he himself had suffered from the same heart condition as Sevek.
Confined to bed that whole winter, Pola and I took care of our brother as best we could.
Pola cooked his meals and I brought them to him. Pola and I worked together to change his linens. I washed them in the tub of water we had warmed on the stove. Pola hung them on a line across the room. The most important thing that we were told to do was to keep Sevek calm.
Thankfully Sevek loved to be read to so reading to my brother was good for both of us. We explored all the Polish literature that I could get my hands on, and read under the one light deep into the night.
Once summer came we managed to send Sevek to a sanitarium in the town of Otwock. This was only possible because Dr. Pupko wrote a formal doctor’s order which in turn meant we paid very little.
Otwock was a rural town with a peaceful atmosphere that helped those like our brother to heal. In the late 1800 hundreds a sanatorium for those with tuberculoses opened there, but soon it became a fashionable health resort for middle-class Jews from Warsaw and central Poland. The evergreen trees in the thick forest made this region and its air famous for healing.
We put Sevek on the train and stood on the platform waving as the train pulled out of the station. When I was sure he could not see I let the tears escape from my eyes. Perhaps it was because I still felt the terrible loss of my mother that I had the irrational thought that I would never see my brother again.
The trip to the sanitarium did exactly what it was supposed to do. Sevek came back to Warsaw looking and feeling much better although two years went by before Dr. Pupko allowed him to go back to work.
Sevek learned how to make women’s purses when he realized he needed a job that was not physically demanding. To his delight and ours, he made beautiful samples which he then took to shops where the owners were quick to place orders. Sevek even found time to make some purses for all of us sisters.
Soon after Sevek’s health improved, when I was sixteen years old I started to cough up phlegm mixed with blood. Adek took me to our local health center to see Dr. Szolemski who prescribed syrup for my hacking, dry cough. He said I had pneumonia and recommended I leave for the countryside to rest as soon as possible. I remember saying I could just rest at home but the doctor was too smart for me. He seemed to know about all my responsibilities at home and responded that I would have to leave the city to get better.
Sala had met a nice Jewish family in the bakery. The mother was going away with her children to a place called Michalin. It was a small town near Otwock where Sevek had regained his health. I was permitted to go with them although it was understood we had to pay.
I packed the few things I had, some undergarments, a dress, a blouse, a skirt and a sweater. I was shaking from the fever as I picked up my mother’s blue blanket and held it to my chest. I knew that if I took it, she would be with me. I also took some of the books I had not had time to read yet.
Sala took the train with me and left on the next train back to Warsaw. At first I wanted to go alone, but Adek refused to let me. I really didn’t argue too much. Up until that point, I had not been out of the city alone at all.
It didn’t take long for me to feel uncomfortable with the family I was staying with. Most of the time, they treated me as if I wasn’t there. For a while the books I brought with me were my only companions and I spent my days reading. I read books by Julian Tuwim, a famous Polish writer and poet, and an inspiration. He was Jewish and wrote only in Polish. I loved to read, and quickly moved on to Adam Mickiewicz, another famous writer in Poland who was a great champion of Jewish rights. However, it was Maria Konopnicka’s fairy tales and short stories that made the greatest impression on my young mind. How easily I associated with that poor little orphan named Marysia who did for others rather than for herself. I knew the pain she carried through her motherless life. I don’t think there was a day I didn’t think of my mother and miss her terribly.
One day I was just finishing another of her Konopnicka’s stories when I was interrupted. Although the boy in the family was about my age, the mother would send only me to the well to get pails of water. Now, once again I was being told to go to the well. It was a long walk from where we were staying. I carried heavy buckets of water that I could barely pick up. I paused every minute due to my shortness of breath and my chills.
Konopnicka’s story was with me as I turned the wheel to bring up the pail of water that day. I stopped to catch my breath again and had a coughing spell. Suddenly, for no particular reason I could think of at the time, I got a picture in my mind of that heroine Marysia. She was so strong, so capable of finding beauty everywhere even though her life was so difficult. Not only that, in the fairytale Marysia also seemed to have compassion for the poor people around her even though she had so little in life herself.
A sudden wave of anger, rebellion swept through my body. Having compassion was one thing, being sick and taken advantage of was something else. I knew that I had been avoiding the truth and there was no way to do this any longer. I was being forced to do something that was too difficult for me. A voice in my head said that no one had a right to exploit me like this. There was no question that I needed to go home as quickly as possible.
As I walked back to the house I wondered about that author I loved so much. While I devoured her work, I knew very little about her. I vowed to find out more.
I strode into the parlor, placed the two pails on the floor and asked for the mother to take me to the train station and help me buy a ticket back to Warsaw. The mother looked down at the pails, shrugged and said okay. I was amazed then, and I still am. She did not even try to stop me.
My siblings were shocked when I walked in to our room. For one thing my rest period was supposed to be longer, and I had come home all alone. I told them quickly what had brought me back and they all understood. What they didn’t know was that I came home a changed person.
As if over night I became aware of things I was not aware of before. As I rested for the next few weeks, I was able to see clearly what my own life had been like up until then. I also discovered that I was indeed an orphan. The more I read the more my eyes were opened. I saw and understood things that I hadn’t even known existed before. There was a world outside my immediate surroundings, and in it there were people who were not all good and yet, not all bad.
Around this time Sala, now twenty-five years old was going out with girlfriends and meeting boys. She soon fell in love. During the Purim Holiday it was traditional for a young man to send a cake and wine to a young lady to signify he was sincerely interested in her. Purim, depending on the year falls between four and six weeks before Passover. In Poland it was still cold this time of year. The snow and sleet covering the streets and sidewalks made it slippery and hazardous to walk. There was always an unfortunate article in the newspapers at this time of year about some young man falling while carrying cake and wine to an unidentified young lady.
Sala’s suitor Moniek had only a mother. Sala made it quickly known that she was not happy with his being a house painter as this trade was looked down upon. They decided, or perhaps she did, that Moniek was to pay a barber to teach him the skills he need to be one himself.
Sala and Moniek were married by a rabbi, but there was no celebration. Neither of them had any money for a party. The day Sala moved out from our room was bitter-sweet. I was happy for my sister but I also felt it was the beginning of the end of what was left of our family. I helped Sala move into her new home which she would share with Moniek and his mother. The three of them would be living in one tiny room which had one small window and only enough room for one bed and a table. Moniek’s mother was to sleep on a mattress that was placed on the floor.
Although Moniek quit house painting and learned to be a barber, he could not find a job. Sala continued working in the same factory as my brother. She sewed clothes on the machine for ten hours a day. Their financial situation was so fragile that when she realized she was pregnant Sala and Moniek decided not to go through with it. I was amazed. Even though I was fifteen, I could not figure out how this had happened with Moniek’s mother sleeping right there on the floor next to the newlyweds. What I learned later on was that couples like Sala and Moniek were quite creative when it came to fulfilling their needs. They would wait for the mother to leave for a while, or at least until they were sure she was in a deep sleep.
Abortions in Poland were illegal. Doctor’s were closely monitored by the government although there were still some who did perform abortions, partly for the money and partly to help a girl in trouble.
Sala tried everything she could to end her pregnancy, from running and jumping to taking pills to induce a miscarriage. Nothing worked. The search began to find a doctor who could help her. I was chosen to help because I spoke Polish the best of all of us. In fact, once we did find a doctor, through a friend of a friend I did have to make all the arrangements in Polish. I wrote down details of the appointment and the directions to his office.
I find myself shaking my head in amazement when I recall going with Sala that day. As much as I thought I knew about pregnancy and babies, I really didn't know very much at all. I was not ready for what was about to happen although I know I appeared calm. It took all my energy to not cry as I tried to comfort poor Sala who trembled uncontrollably. I made up my mind; right then and there that I would never, ever put myself through what my sweet sister was going through. The waiting room was dark but I was grateful it was clean. It was after regular office hours which made Sala feel even more miserable. She asked me if I thought she was doing something wrong. I answered that since we were in a nice, clean doctor’s office everything would be just fine. I don’t know that I believed it, especially when the doctor nervously asked two times how Sala got his name. Finally he seemed to accept her answers but told us to wait a while to make sure we hadn’t been followed. After about fifteen minutes very little was said. Sala was ushered into the next room after handing the doctor 30.00 Polish zloty. I asked if I could come in too and there was no objection from the doctor. I saw the tears; in Sala’s eyes when he said that time was precious. It was obvious to me that it would be best for all of us if we could get done and leave as quickly as possible.
I sat in a chair next to my sister and held her hand as she lay on the doctor’s metal table. She never made a sound. After about thirty minutes Sala got up, straightened her clothes and thanked the doctor.
I wish I could say that was the end of the abortion issue but it wasn’t. Two days later, Sala woke with a high fever. She had always been very thin and somewhat anemic with frequent bouts of tonsillitis. It was obvious that going through the abortion had put a great strain on her already weak body, as well as her mind. Sala stayed in bed for two weeks and hardly spoke to anyone, not even her husband. Although she recovered enough to go back to work, I felt she was not the same.
To make matters worse, Moniek still couldn’t find a job. He and Sala decided that he would go to his uncle in Luxemburg and try his luck there. After a few months with no success there either, Moniek came back to Warsaw. Now he decided to join a group of young men, called Halutzim, the pioneers, who were embarking on a trip, by foot to Palestine. Sala was totally opposed to this idea but nothing she said could stop him. I remember the sadness in her eyes that day he kissed her lightly on the cheek and left.
At the beginning the local Jewish newspaper wrote about the travelers’ whereabouts. During the day they walked and at night they slept in small towns. After three weeks there was no longer any news. Sala was frantic. She wanted to go to the town from where the last news had come. So that she would not be taking this journey alone, in her still fragile condition, her girlfriend Ella, who was a tough young lady went with her.
Sala arrived to find, to her disbelief, Moniek parading around town with a young lady on his arm. Sala told me later that he did not make a fuss when she and Ella insisted that he return immediately with them to Warsaw.
I was so angry with Moniek I couldn’t look at him. At the same time I was so grateful for Sala when soon after their return, cousin Itzak came to their rescue. Like the gallant knights I’d read about, Itzak knew about Sala’s misfortune and made Moniek an offer. As Itzak was receiving a monthly allowance from his father in Paris, he decided to purchase a barbershop on Nowolipki 36 Street and make Moniek his partner. Life for Sala and Moniek slowly fell into place. My sister was smiling again.
Sala soon became pregnant again but when it was time to give birth she was afraid to go to the hospital. She decided to have her baby at home with me, Andza, and the midwife we hired to help. We stayed up all night trying to do the best we could in the awful experience that followed. Moniek, like all men was not allowed in the room while his wife was giving birth. He was in charge of boiling water. Sala’s screams filled the room and I am sure all the neighbors heard her as well. The midwife looked on and did nothing. I couldn’t understand how this could be happening but I had to assume that she knew what she was doing. Suddenly Sala’s pain seemed to subside. The midwife reported that the baby’s movements had stopped.
As always, in a case of emergency my sister and I ran to Adek for help. At that time he already was married and lived quite far away. Adek had married his boss’s daughter and was doing well after all the sacrifices he had made for us. His wealthy wife was also pregnant with their first child. He quickly called for an ambulance on the precious telephone that they had just installed weeks before. The three of us rushed back to be with Sala. With the ambulance a doctor was dispatched, and after examining Sala he immediately ordered her to the hospital to have childbirth by C-section. The two ambulance workers had to carry Sala down the steps of the four-story walk up.
We counted the hours and then the minutes until we could go to the hospital to see if Sala’s baby was still alive although I worried mostly for Sala’s life. We had to wait until nine o’clock in the morning for the downstairs information window of the hospital on Wolnosci Street to open. Andza and I went there at eight and already found dozens of people waiting in line. When the information window finally opened and our turn came, we looked at each other and froze. Andza pushed me in front of the window where I managed to ask how Mrs. Gasfeld was. Andza and I started to cry when we heard the words, ‘your sister gave birth to a beautiful baby boy at four o’clock this morning.’
We were not allowed to see Sala that day as only husbands were allowed to visit, and even then for just a few minutes. We were allowed to bring food for her though and we left it at the hospital’s window. If the food was easily digested, such as soup, cooked vegetables or fruit compote and most dairy products it was accepted.
In those days women stayed in the hospital for eight days after giving birth. Sala was weak but happy when she walked out of the hospital carrying Pinkus, who was named after our father. We affectionately called him Pinek.
Soon Adek’s wife gave birth to a girl who they named Bluma, after our mother.
Adek like Sala got married in 1933. His bride’s parents were both alive and she had two young brothers. She was the oldest of the three children. Adek told me the family was very loving. I was so happy for him. The father of Adek’s wife was an owner of the large textile factory on ulica Bonifraterska 27 where Adek and Sala worked. As I mentioned earlier, that is where Adek started working when he was twelve, after our father died. The bride’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Rotband made a gala wedding and then made our brother a business partner in the factory. The newly married couple moved in with their in-laws where Adek quickly became, as he said, ‘one of the family.’
Through all this time we stayed close to our mother’s family, her four sisters and two brothers. After the First World War the oldest of the sisters escaped with her husband and children to Russia. They never came back although we knew they had two daughters and five sons. While surviving World War II in Russia I visited my cousins and uncle in Moscow in February of 1941 but this will come later on in my story.
One of our mother’s brothers, Dovid was a socialist. He took on the dangerous job of working against the Polish government and subsequently became a wanted man. He was hiding guns in his mother’s stove in the summer time since it was not used. The guns were discovered anyway and Dovid had to go into hiding. His family dressed him as a woman and arranged for false documents to get him out of Poland and into France. His best friend also had to leave Poland since he too was working against the Polish government and was a wanted man. This best friend was married to Estera, the youngest of my mother’s sisters.
Estera, a beautiful woman with blond hair and blue eyes was always a welcomed visitor at our room. She had one son, Itzak who was a year older then me and who eventually helped Sala’s husband with the barber shop. Already many couples were starting to marry because they were in love. This was a new, revolutionary concept but in Estera’s case we all knew that she was not in love with her husband. On the other hand, he loved Estera very much. Since mother’s brother and the husband of mother’s youngest sister were both wanted by the Polish authorities, both men did successfully escape to France where Estera and her baby later joined them in Paris. After a few years, however, Estera missed her sisters and brother in Warsaw. She came back and that was how her son Itzak grew up with us and became like another brother.
Another of mother’s sister, Hadasa had four children- two girls and two boys. She too was pretty and dressed in a very stylish manner. All four of her children went to school and the oldest son became a bookkeeper. Her husband was a successful merchant. He owned a large grocery store on Gesia Street and so they were well off. Every time Hadasa came to visit us she would clean her shoes before leaving to go back home to Nalewki Street where all the rich Jewish people lived. I never quite understood her little ritual with her shoes but it left quite an impression on me.
Mother’s only other brother who lived in Poland was Motel. He was the youngest of the siblings who, as I mentioned earlier, Pola was feeding at our expense. Motel was a proud man who owned a store where he manufactured and sold fashionable women’s hats. The store and his home were in the Polish neighborhood. Motel had two sons and one daughter. His marriage fell apart when the children were still young. To his credit he kept the children and raised them by himself.
Now there were only four of us left in our one room apartment. Pola was different from the rest of us. She was indifferent to the outside world and only wanted to stay home, take care of us and do the house chores. She was close to our neighbors, relating well to the other women and seeking their advice. Pola seemed to be happy with her life. She did demand that her working siblings give her all of their earnings.
There was a constant battle between Pola and Andza. Andza was a very smart young woman who, by 1934 was fully participating in the workers movement. As Pola stood strong in her demands for Andza’s money the tension grew in our home. Andza’s rebellion brought about vicious fighting between the two of them. One Friday night, just before the Sabbath, their arguing was especially fierce. It started off like every other Friday night for the last three years. Pola stood there with her arms crossed over her chest, waiting for all of Andza’s earnings. Andza looked so tired that night when she rushed in right before sundown. Perhaps it was because she was so tired that she responded the way she did, but she refused to hand over any of her money.
“I cook, I clean, and I take care of all of you.” Pola’s voice was getting louder and louder.
“What am I supposed to use for money?”
“We don’t need you to do this. You don’t seem to see our lives have not stood still.´ Andzia’s voice had an unfamiliar anger in it. “It’s three years since mother died and you still don’t realize it. The world has changed, and we have changed too.”
Pola’s mouth fell open. Her cheeks were red.
“We can all do your job equally.” Andza’s voice was strong and clear. “Pola, you have to get a job. And I have to start thinking about my future.”
Pola stepped up to Andza and put her face close to hers. “You are such an ungrateful person. I can not believe you are my sister.”
I am not your little sister anymore Pola.” Andza took a step back. “See, I am all grown up. We all are. Look, see Roma? You can hide in this room forever but the truth is that there is no one to take care of anymore.”
I stood in the corner with my hands over my ears. I shut my eyes tight. My family was falling apart.