Anna Maria, born in 1940
Why can’t I remember…?
I, that is, the generation of 1940, born in the Reich, right next to the border with the General Government. We lived at Mrs. R’s, probably the best person I’ve even known. She took in a young couple, a Jewish woman and a goy, when his family had turned their back on them. She took care of us for the entire war. She saw my Father off when he was being deported by the Gestapo to Thüringia to a Labor Camp for men from mixed marriages. She taught me the evening prayer and religious songs. She watched and protected me more than her own daughters. All she had in return was our love and appreciation. She forever remained my second mama. Two Jewish females from our town survived: my mama and I.
Photographs, lots of yellowed photographs. Who took them? Who had a camera? Where were they developed? In the pictures, a girl with big eyes. One of the earliest ones—me in a white rabbit fur coat and a pointy fur hat. Where on earth did I get a fur coat from?
Mama: “You had such a misshapen oblong head… I was embarrassed and sewed you hats like for a gnome to hide it.” She adds with sadness and despair in her voice: “I didn’t have food for you, I had to dissolve chicken stock in water…” More pictures, a whole series. This girl is a little bigger, she’s running around in a long dress.
Bożenka, the daughter of our caretaker, eight years older than me: “You were bow-legged and walked like a duck. Other children laughed at you when you swayed like that from side to side. You had rickets from malnourishment. That’s why Mama would put you in such long dresses.” Is that why I fall so much these days? Is that why I break a bone once a year on average? With each break I think to myself: at least Mama can’t see this. She’d feel guilty again that she neglected something BACK THEN.
Bożenka: “One time, your mama’s friend came. We were told to get out into the yard. After some time, we heard a blood-curdling scream and later weeping.” It was my mama grieving. She learned how my grandma had perished. The family was fleeing on a horse cart from Bochnia towards Grobla. Why were the Germans there? They had everyone move into a truck. Grandma wasn’t fast enough, and when they were shoving her she fell. A shot. Some younger relative threw himself towards Grandma; he wanted to help. A shot in the head. Mama lay without speaking, staring at the ceiling for weeks. Why can’t I remember that?
The war was ending. The Germans were frantic.
Mama: “I kept waiting. I wouldn’t sit with my back to the door or the window. I wanted to see. I was waiting for them to get me. I was deliberating how I would act when they came. It must be our turn, everyone else is gone. The ghetto in the nearby town is gone, the Auschwitz sub-camp and crematorium are close. There were only the two of us left.”
And they did come. At night, pounding on the windows. Mama hid under the comforter and terrified, had only one thought: I’m not going out like a sheep for slaughter. And a reflection: Why are they banging for so long? They should have stormed inside a long time ago. She peeked out from under the comforter and then heard: “Neighbor! Wake up! We must hide in the bunker and you’re sleeping!” What a relief. So, it’s not today, I’m still alive. Why can’t I remember that?
And Mama would not sit with her back to the window for the rest of her life. In case they would come for Mama, I didn’t sleep with her. Our caretaker would take me to her place for the night. I was supposed to live.
Bożenka: “In the evening, you could feel unrest at home. Everyone moped around, tense, anxious. When it was time for the child to go to sleep, you had to be separated. Another evening drama.
“We both cried, held on to each other. The caretaker would have to tear me off Mama. We said goodbyes like we were never going to see each other again. Later Mama would wail in despair for half the night, and I, whimpering, jittery, couldn’t fall asleep.” Bożenka has these images before her eyes to this day. She can hear the wailing, our despair. Why can’t I remember that?
“Mommy, what was the war like?” Mama: “I will tell you what it was like when I was little.” And she’d begin her stories of games, frolic, and mischief with her siblings. And there were four of them.
No one survived but her. After the war, I would often repeat this question before going to bed. And I’d always get the same answer. Until I finally stopped asking about the war, and started asking, “Mommy, tell me what it was like when you were little.”
The dialogs which I put here have been with me all my life. I can still hear them. But I know the most tragic moment only from stories. They are completely wiped out from my memory. Our caretaker and her husband passed away. My mama and father are gone too. I continue to live, knowing nothing, with a curiosity that none of them wanted to satisfy. I am annoyed with myself for not remembering.