Alina Parzęczewska, born in 1934
A Good Hiding Place
I am not describing the events chronologically but according to the impact, the depth of emotions that remain in my memory. When in May 1945 the bells were ringing, announcing the end of the war, Mama and I fell into each other’s arms. Mama burst out in violent sobbing and couldn’t calm down for a long time. I had never seen her in such a state before; even in the most difficult moments she was always composed. Now I understood that out of our whole large family in Poland—from Odrzywół, Przysucha, Warsaw, and Łódź—we were the only two left alive. But even two was a lot!
When I found myself in the Association of Children of the Holocaust in Poland, I understood that I was very lucky, not only because I had survived, but because I knew my parents, grandfathers, grandmother, and cousins. I have no prewar photographs, but long ago, in school, I attempted to re-create a likeness of my father on a postcard that had a picture of Juliusz Słowacki—by changing the poet’s hair, the shape of his mustache, his collar…
I know that during the war I was a witness (perhaps the only living one) to several events, which I want to describe. I want to depict the atmosphere of those times when there was a ghetto in Warsaw and an Aryan side, to recall people whom no one else will remember.
Sometimes I recall the image of Ewa-Agata, who, in a manner known only to herself, constantly traveled back and forth between the two sides. She brought back secret addresses of Poles who were willing to take in Jews from the ghetto for an appropriate payment. This applied mainly to women and girls who had “Aryan looks” or to very little children, of whom there were few left. She helped many people, including me.
Sometimes I remember sixteen- or eighteen-year-old Janusz, who was at one time put to work cleaning up Umschlagplatz, and his eight- year-old brother, Hermuś crying at night with his parents I cannot forget Tosia, a girl rescued from Umschlagplatz by mistake…
Umschlagplatz – transfer place. Large square on the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto that served as the transfer point for Jews (ap proximately 400,000) rounded up to be shipped to labor or extermination camps.
But first I want to describe the shock that split my life in half (well, maybe not exactly in half). After it, I would talk about “this was before that” or “this was after that.” The event relates to my own personal “Snow White” and a Hebrew language textbook.
That day I was sitting with some women, our neighbors, at a long table in a large apartment on Muranowski Square in the ghetto. We settled in this apartment after getting out of Umschlagplatz (I’ll write about Umschlagplatz another time). The apartment was nice, with beautiful old furniture. I don’t know who had owned the apartment or the furniture and the other things that were left behind in a great rush. There were some Hebrew books and newspapers, and Mama even found some kasha in the kitchen. I found a strange piece of a chain with geometric patterns and circles and a piece of coral stone of a strange shape topped with a dome- shaped wire screen. Later, on the Aryan side, I was told to throw it out because it was “some kind of Ashkenazi Jewish piece of work.” What do you know! Even a chain was “Jewish”!
Getting back to the subject, that day—it was February or March—the morning sun was shining brightly. Besides me, there were two neighbors sitting at the long table; an older one, with black hair fastened in the back of her head, was playing solitaire, having put her coat and purse on the chair next to her. She wore a wool scarf on her shoulders. She hadn’t gone to the “shop” with her husband that day, because she wasn’t feeling well.
A “shop” was a forced labor workshop in the ghetto where shoemakers, brush makers, and tailors worked for the Germans. (Author’s note)
The other was a girl with dark, wavy hair. That morning her parents had gone to work in the shop. Unfortunately, I can’t remember her name, but in my thoughts, I call her “Snow White”. Behind us there was a large, dark cupboard, and in it were tablecloths, dish towels, and napkins, carefully folded by the previous owners. In the drawers were silver dinner knives, small knives, big forks, dessert forks, tablespoons, and teaspoons. On top there were lovely little porcelain pitchers, which Ewa-Agata exchanged for carrots, beets, or potatoes. In the corner of the room was a large grandfather clock, and scattered beside it, in disarray, were children’s toys, books, coral necklaces, a ball, and a doll’s baby carriage—with the comforter folded back but no doll inside. While cleaning up, Mama superstitiously avoided that corner with its toys that had belonged, not so long ago, to a little girl. I, too, was afraid to touch that empty little carriage. . . .
The apartment had one great advantage: after looking around a bit, we found a great hiding place in case of a blockade. This was not some room behind a wardrobe, where I had a scarf tied over my mouth and was taught to hold my breath so that not even a heartbeat could be heard. This hiding place was out of the ordinary—through a little window in the kitchen or the bathroom, I don’t remember which, one could get over onto the roof of a lower building next door and hide behind a chimney!
A blockade was the closing off of streets to prevent escape while all the inhabitants were rounded up for deportation.
The neighbors had come to our room that day because of that hiding place. They sat and talked, while the girl filed her fingernails with a small file. On her slender wrist she wore a bracelet, and on her finger, a lovely ring. On her other wrist shone a little watch. In front of her, by her cuticle stick and small scissors, lay an open, worn-out book—it was a children’s textbook for learning Hebrew, with large pictures of various animals, little horses. I sat next to her and looked at pictures in a large book about Snow White, then at those in the Hebrew book, back and forth. The girl was tall and slender and had her hair pinned up just like Snow White, except that instead of a ribbon, it was pinned with two little combs. “You’re like Snow White,” I told her. She laughed, touched the tip of my nose with her finger, and said, “And you’re Dopey!”
The neighbor beside us mumbled something. She was getting more and more upset; her solitaire game wasn’t going well, so she picked up the cards and laid them out again. I could hear Mama in the kitchen as she shuffled pots, opened windows, and went out on the stairs. She was on the alert whether a blockade was coming. Everything was cold in the apartment. We couldn’t even leave warm water in the teapot. In case there was an inspection during a blockade, everything was to look as if no one had been there, that everyone was at work in the shop. I remember that Snow White leaned over her book, pointed to something with her finger, and said, “And what’s a sus?” when Mama ran suddenly into the room and yelled, “They’re already here!” Each of the women grabbed her things, I buttoned my sweater, and we all crowded by the little window.
Sus (Hebrew) means horse, one of the first words of elementary Hebrew. (Author’s note).
The neighbor with the cards went out on the roof first and hid behind the chimney so she wouldn’t be seen. Next, the girl slipped out through the window and lay down behind another chimney. Mama pushed me out, crawled out herself, and pulled the curtain over the window. I was very scared, but the girl held out her hand from behind her chimney, as if to beckon to us. Pushed by Mama, on all fours, I got to the chimney behind which the girl was sitting. We sat off to the side, so that we couldn’t be seen from the apartment window. I heard yelling, greatly intensified by megaphones. Mama leaned sideways against the chimney and put her free arm around me. We were all safe; we couldn’t be seen from the windows in the apartment.
Suddenly, close by, I heard German being spoken. I looked up and saw two helmets and two gun barrels high up at the edge of the roof of our building. They were screaming something. From up there they could see only me and Mama, because we were sitting at the side of the chimney and not behind it. All of a sudden, a shower of golden, tiny, pointed cylinders fell all around. These were shells, shining in the sun like golden pellets. Sometimes when they hit the roof, sparks would fly. Mama and I sat, silent and still. I didn’t look up anymore. The sun was shining harshly, and there were more and more of these little golden pellets. They jumped around and rolled off the roof. I thought that after the shooting ended, I would pick them up and show them to the children in the courtyard.
And then a piercing thought reminded me, “In what courtyard? What children?!” There were no more children in the courtyard, and in a short while, I would also soon be gone. “Dear God,” I prayed silently. “Dear God, don’t let these golden pellets hit us.” I didn’t see, but I heard and sensed it as the neighbor ran out from behind her chimney and, running toward the window, yelled, “Let’s go back, they’ll kill us here.” Later, they said that this woman’s nerves couldn’t take it; she ran, zigzagging back to the little window. She didn’t make it. There was a horrible scream, a thump, and, for the moment, everything fell silent.
We both sat as if turned to stone. From above, they were screaming something. I heard “Donnerwetter, verfluchte…” [Damn it, cursed …] Later, Mama, who knew German very well, told me that they were berating themselves for shooting so badly. Their ammunition was running out, but none of them wanted to bother going down to get more rounds.
Besides, the blockade was over. Only they and we were left on the roof. They decided to shoot more accurately with the last few remaining bullets. Again they yelled for us to come down from that roof. One was particularly loud, yelling and cursing terribly. He cursed us, his buddy, and even himself for having missed so badly; he cursed everything and everyone. More golden pellets fell beside me. Suddenly blood spurted out, my arm and leg were red; blood flowed under me, I felt I was sticking to the roof. The red spots grew larger on my white sweater. Mama held me tight, and we didn’t move anymore. My last thought was that I had just died, but I didn’t make a sound.
When I opened my eyes, I was standing in the middle of some courtyard in a basin of water. Mama was sitting in a chair beside me. The blockade was over. A woman was taking my sweater off, wiping me with a towel, and kept saying with wonder, “She’s not even scratched.”
A ladder that was used to get us down from the roof stood nearby. The courtyard was full of people who had come back from the shop. Two young Ukrainians in German uniforms and a group of men stood off to the side. One of the men spoke briefly with Mama, then took things out of various pockets of his coat and vest and handed them to the soldiers, so they wouldn’t take us away. They looked perplexed at the girl lying nearby. Then they approached her, “How did that happen?” one asked. They hadn’t seen her when they were shooting, and she wasn’t the one they were aiming at. It turned out that in that moment the girl had leaned out, as if to see something, or to speak. Her head was then behind my arm and leg. The shots hit her in the neck.
In the end, both German soldiers rode off on a motorcycle. The husband of the neighbor who had been killed stood silently over her body. Her tousled hair stuck out from under the covering. The dead girl lay a little closer. Her father stood over her with clenched fists, her mother crying. And I, looking at her, suddenly began repeating, “What’s a sus? What’s a sus?”
Shortly after this, at almost the last moment before the ghetto uprising began, Mama and I got out through the sewers to the Aryan side. It was dangerous there, too, but I can’t write about everything in one breath. Some other time.