Lea Balint, born in 1938
My life began when I was 12 years old, on the day when a ship chock full of a crowd saved from the Holocaust unloaded its human cargo onto the shore in Haifa. We were welcomed by a heavy rain, but it soon stopped and the sun broke through the clouds and promptly dried out the puddles. My father turned to me and declared briefly, “This is a symbolic greeting. The sun of our homeland has dried our tears. This is the beginning of our life. Starting today, you only speak Hebrew. We shall never use the language of the cemetery again.”
That was in November 1950. My father was a 48-year-old widower who had been saved from the concentration camp in Auschwitz and from forced labor camps. At that point, I was a 12-year-old girl, an only daughter of her parents who had preserved the Jewish religious tradition, a girl who had been saved from the ghetto, raised in a Catholic convent, and towards the end of the war, in a communist orphanage. By the time I was 12, I had learned the principles of two religions and one ideology.
We left behind the graves of my father’s parents, three of his brothers with their wives and children, the graves of my mother’s brother and six sisters with their spouses and children, grandparents, uncles, and distant relatives. Because we didn’t know the location of their burial—if it existed at all—my father decided that all of Poland was one huge cemetery for our family. He didn’t include my mother as deceased because in 1950, he was still hoping that he would see her alive.
The Iron Curtain, which fell on Polish-Israeli relations, also disconnected us—the children saved from the Holocaust—from a past filled with traumatic memories, the fear of solitude, and orphanhood. We stored these memories, buried deep inside us, and each child gave them a different name in their own language: a black box, a heavy stone, a package wrapped in a thousand bandages, a secretly bleeding wound, a fist inside the heart… We enveloped ourselves in silence and waited. We let adults saved from the Holocaust scream out their pain. At times, you could hear their screaming at night.
We children thought that we were lucky. We managed to get out of the nightmare alive. Most avoided concentration camps and labor camps. Some families or Catholic convents held out a helping, humane, hand to us—the children of the Holocaust. With devotion and despite the risk of death, that hand led us to victory over the Nazi monster. We dared not utter a word of complaint because our suffering paled in comparison with that of adults who had been stripped of their humanity. How could we compare to those who had lost their entire families, a roof over their heads, and were left mentally scarred and physically sick? After the war, adult survivors had to grapple with an unclear future in Poland, Israel, and overseas. Wherever they went, they had to rebuild their families and keep a sane mind.
The difference between us and the adults who survived didn’t lie in the scope of the suffering that each of us experienced, but in the degree of our ability to comprehend that suffering. We couldn’t understand why we had been forced out of our homes, separated from our parents, and transferred into strangers’ hands, which weren’t always the caressing kind. We couldn’t understand why we had to hide in cellars while other children could play outside in the fresh air. We couldn’t understand why the word “Jew” was an offensive term and why it was used against us. After the war, we couldn’t understand why strangers made us call them “Mommy and Daddy.”
We couldn’t understand why some children found their mothers while no one was looking for us. We couldn’t get why, having passed through dozens of hands, orphanages, hiding places, and addresses by the time we were seven, it was us who were forced to emigrate overseas. We were the children of trains. From faint memories, we could recall train tracks, gloomy stations, and our faces with dark eyes that were meticulously covered. We chose silence because for us it was a medicine. It cut us off from the past and allowed us to feel the childlike joy of life. Thanks to that, we could live on, grow up, learn, start our own families, and raise our own children. Our silence gave the adults room to grieve and talk about their hardship. It wasn’t until most of them renewed their lives, grew old, and came to terms with their losses, that the young voices were heard. I was also one of those children who decided to keep quiet.
Right after the war ended, my father made a few clumsy attempts at telling me what he had gone through in Auschwitz. Out of all his stories, I remembered only one. One day, my father found a cigarette butt right next to his barracks in the camp. He bent over to pick it up. Suddenly, as he stretched out his hand for the desired cigarette butt, a black officer boot mercilessly pinned his hand down to the ground. My father raised his head to see the blue eyes and a smile of a young man.
“Jude, fancy a smoke?” he asked in a friendly voice. He reached into his pocket and took out a cigarette. He lit it with pleasure, deeply breathed in the smoke a couple times and handed the cigarette to my father. My father reached out for it. The young German looked at the stretched-out hand, flipped his own hand over and started burning my father’s skin with the glowing cigarette.
“Jude, have a smoke because tomorrow you’ll be smoke yourself,” said the young Nazi with a smile of satisfaction on his face. “You’d better get used to the smell of burning flesh, Jude.”
This story stuck with me. My father would repeat one thing until the end of his days: life in the camp was hell but the worst part was the constant struggle with humiliation and being stripped of human dignity. I was 7 and it was hard for me to listen to the stories about my father’s humiliation. I could only hear about my mother, her beauty and exceptional personality, from her friends who stayed alive.
I would approach the topic of the Holocaust gently, cautiously, and hesitantly. I spent my childhood in one of the most beautiful districts of Haifa, at the house of my aunt’s, my mother’s sister. Respecting my father’s wishes, we would never speak Polish at home, and I, in order to be quickly accepted by the children of the new country, had to do exceptionally well in two areas: learn perfect Hebrew and stand out in sports. To my father’s boundless joy, when I was 13, I went to a secondary Hebrew school in Haifa.
Here I was, his little girl, saved from the Holocaust, scared and closed off, who managed to get in to one of the best schools in the country.Having completed high school, I enrolled in a teachers’ seminar. When the army mobilized me, I was so proud of my uniform that I wore it even on Saturdays or on my days off duty.
After I performed my military service, I left Haifa and studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There I met my future husband, who had also been saved from the Holocaust. He was from Yugoslavia. When our children were born, I waited for them to grow up and I went back to school to earn my graduate degree. It was exclusively on the history of Zionism. I didn’t reflect why I was avoiding courses on the history of the Holocaust. I decided to write a thesis entitled “The Arab-Israeli Conflict from the Beginning of the 20th Century until the Creation of the State of Israel.”
This is when I was given the opportunity to take part in a trip to Poland, which completely disrupted my future plans. At that point, my father was 82 years old. That was in 1984. That year the first group was formed of lecturers and students of humanities at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who decided to go to Poland in search of their roots. It was one of the first delegations that had officially been invited by the Polish authorities. It was composed of researchers and students who wished to visit Poland and reach it through the narrow border channel that had just opened up to the West. Most of the professors in that group came from Poland.
When I was notified about the plans to go there, I felt as if I had suddenly been transported to another world. Initially, when I thought about joining the group, I was torn by conflicting emotions. I was reliving the moment on the train taking us to the Italian port, when my father held my face in his warm hands and whispered, “You will never, ever, have to go back to the valley of death.” These words gave me flashbacks to the country that I had erased from my memory many years before. After two sleepless nights, I felt the irresistible need to go there. I began fervent preparations for the trip. First and foremost, I had to apply for a Polish visa. Fearing that I might change my mind and withdraw from the trip to Poland, I immediately paid for the airfare and took time off work. I sent a letter to the convent where I had been hidden and informed the nuns about my upcoming visit.
Knowing that I was going back to the place that would open my old wounds gave me many a sleepless night. I’d lie in my bed listening to my heartbeat. From time to time, I sneaked into my children’s bedrooms to check if they were still there. I had a feeling as if the ground were slipping out from under my feet, and I needed to reassure myself that I was still living in a world of calmness and certainty.
On a rainy March day in 1984 I walked again on Polish ground. The group with which I was traveling was supporting me. A small part of my Israeli homeland—in the form of the participants of the expedition—gave me the strength and courage to return to the three havens of my childhood: the city where I was born, the convent where I was hidden during the war and the Jewish Orphanage near Łódź, where I spent five years after the war. It was no coincidence that I chose the second port as the beginning of my travels around Poland. I concluded that the convent would be a barometer of my capacity to go back in time. If I was able to return to a time when my life was restored to me, it would mean that I could handle the visits to the other ports of my childhood.
The trip to the convent in Brwinów forced me to give up the visit to the Jewish Historical Institute, which had been planned by my group. As a result, one of the chapters of my life remained closed to me for the next seven years. The documentation regarding the early years of my childhood was kept in the archives of the Institute and had to wait for a few more years to be discovered. I called a cab driver recommended to me by a friend in Israel and I asked him to take me to my second port of call. Very soon, it turned out that Julek was a perfect companion for my journey to the past.
Julek was married to a Jew who had been saved from the Warsaw ghetto. He was a mountain of a man with an extraordinary sense of humor. In a gruff way, he immediately helped me find my footing in reality. “Stop being all soppy or I’ll dress you in a habit and leave you at the convent,” he said, winking at me. His thunderous laughter reverberated in the cab, which was struggling down the road to Brwinów. I almost did just that, I thought. Who knows how many saved Jewish girls who had lost their entire families stayed in convents and with time, made religious vows? I could have been one of them; I kept pondering.
I rolled down the cab window to investigate the landscape. The frost nipped at my cheeks and the cold air pierced the inside of my nostrils, but the upcoming visit prevented me from feeling it. I was returning to Brwinów after forty years of absence. Images started pouring in from the dusty drawers of my memory. The convent materialized before my eyes, like a castle full of dark hallways, surrounded by a wall and a formidable iron gate. The wall and the gate were protecting us from the evil lurking outside.
The convent was located in the middle of a spacious yard. On its right side there was a woodworking shop where a strange man with sad eyes worked. From time to time when no one was looking, he’d plant a piece of candy in the pocket of my apron. I used to guard this treasure until the evening. At night, listening to the breathing of other sleeping children, I satisfied my hunger by sucking at the candy slowly and quietly. These were brief moments of absolute joy.
At the back of the convent, there was a large glass veranda which stood out against the heavy buildings of the convent. The daylight easily entered through the windows, and created a bright splotch, as if painted by an artist, on the heavy gray walls of the building. Through the veranda windows I’d watch the vivid and colorful world around us, filled with animal sounds, so different from the damp cellar where I spent long days. Across from the glass veranda stretched an orchard. Every day, dressed as a boy with a cap covering my face and a shaved head, I walked among the fruit trees to shorten my route to school. In the corner of the orchard, there was a hole in the mesh fence that surrounded the convent. I was slender, so I had no problem getting through it to the other side, which put me right in front of the school building.
The first floor of the building was taken by the German headquarters, swarming with the Wehrmacht soldiers in fancy uniforms. They talked with harsh soldier-like voices that left their mouths like swords slicing up the air. The classrooms were on the second floor. In order to reach my classroom, I had to pass through the floor of the German headquarters. From there, scared and with my heart pounding, I’d run and burst into my classroom. At that point, I didn’t entirely understand what I was afraid of. The nuns had explained to me that the German soldiers didn’t like dark hair. So as not to upset the Germans, they shaved my head and dressed me in boy’s clothes. I lost a lot of school days so as not to upset the Germans. Sometimes, when the fair-haired children went to school, I was sent to the basement, which I couldn’t leave without the permission of the nun in charge of little children. I never asked why I should fear the Germans more than other children did. The nuns taught us not to ask questions, and we had to follow the convent’s rules rigorously.
We reached the gray, sleepy town. In the corner of my eye, I saw a white sign by the train station with the name Brwinów spelled out in black letters. Without hesitation, I pointed Julek to the town center, and from there I asked him to take a narrow road lined on both sides with naked birch trees. Screeching and grinding, the cab stopped near a two-story mustard-colored building.
Four nuns emerged, dressed in black habits with starched white collars. They started our way, waving at us in greeting. Two of them—probably the Mother Superior and her deputy—embraced me and kissed me on the cheeks. I stood there, perplexed and embarrassed like a little girl. I never thought that I’d be allowed to kiss a nun on the cheek. Back then, when we asked them to forgive our sins, we were allowed to kiss a nun on the hand.
Etched in my memory was a large, heavy building in the midst of fruit trees and surrounded by a tall fence with a palatial iron gate. But now the front gate through which I was entering was small and narrow and no taller than my shoulder. The nuns were short too. Was I a head taller than the Mother Superior? How was that possible?
Distant images of the departure time… the year 1945, emerged from the storage of my memory. A small girl stands on her toes to kiss the crucifix hanging from the neck of the Mother Superior. “May God protect you and Lord Jesus Christ bless your every step. Don’t forget us.” After these words the nun quickly turns around and disappears behind the convent’s gate. The little girl gives her hand to a woman whom she had just met and they both start into the unknown.
The convent’s gate opened again after forty years. The younger nun waved at me and invited me inside the convent, but my feet took me to the woodworking shop in the yard. I scanned it for a doghouse that used to be right in the middle of the yard, as if I were expecting to hear the happy bark of my favorite dog, a friend from the time of the war. The nuns weren’t able to point to the place where the doghouse used to be, but they were happy to grant my other wish and took me to the place where the woodworking shop used to be. “The Jew, whom we had saved, stayed with us after the war until the day he died in the ‘50s,” said the elder nun. She didn’t realize how much this memory moved me.
I followed the nuns to the convent and asked them to take me to the basement where I’d spent many a day of my childhood. I remembered a damp place underneath the floor of the convent. As I was walking down the narrow concrete stairs, I told the nuns about the fear that had gripped me in those days when I lay on a heap of stinking potatoes, terrified that the ceiling would come down and bury me alive. As an old habit, I gave the narrow wooden door a slight push. I expected to see a dark chamber, heaps of potatoes on the ground with rats on top of them, scurrying and squeaking angrily at the disturbance.
The bright light coming from a small window opposite the entry blinded me for a moment. Both sides of the walls were taken up by wooden shelves stocked with jars filled with jam and pickled mushrooms, neatly placed in rows. Right under the window, there were two barrels full of pickled cucumbers and cabbage. Their smell permeated the whole basement. Between them was a small heap of fresh and clean potatoes, the “descendants” of the rotten and dirty ones, which back then, made up a mattress for my body shrunken with fear. The glimpses of the past cut me off at the knees…
I can hear the sounds of a storm, thunderclaps, and in the dark, I make a spoon against the girl lying next to me. The calming voice of the nun pierces the dark but her words amplify my fear even more: It’s God. He’s angry at bad people and you can hear his mighty voice. God is punishing the sinners. The image fades away…
I’m looking out of a bedroom window, watching the clouds. The sky is crimson. The large head of a cloud with heavy locks of smoke is spitting scarlet fire, spreading fear all around. Its cheeks are swollen, its eyes are glowing, and it’s spewing red-gray lava towards my window. I’m trying to press my nose against the windowpane, but I quickly back away for fear I might get burned. I can hear the nun’s voice from behind: come, children, we’ll go down to the basement. God is angry at the sinners and He’s burning Warsaw. The obedient children are flocking to the nun, arranging themselves, as usual, into a row. The tall ones in the front, the small ones at the back. I’m at the very end and I feel safe next to the nun’s habit, which is brushing against my cheek. We’re descending into the dark basement in silence. We cling to the cold, muddy potatoes. Something soft and warm is climbing up my body and reaches my neck. My hand touches a thin tail, which tickles my nose and quickly retreats. The mouse took to the hole in my ear, and rested there before “visiting” the face of another child…
The two nuns that accompanied me on my visit at the convent traced every change on my face, read what was going on in my heart, and apparently guessed the train of my thoughts. They understood that every inch of that hiding place brought back my childhood, which had long slipped my memory.
I closed the basement door and we all climbed the stairs to the middle floor of the house. The long, narrow hallway led us to a spacious bedroom. The time lapse changed nothing in that room, only the beds seemed to have shrunk a little. The large room was filled with sunlight, promising that spring was around the corner. There were about twenty beds painted a cream color. Each of them was covered with a white woolen blanket. A small pillow and a doll were placed on each bed. Dozens of small blue dolls’ eyes followed an intruder who stirred the peace of the bedroom where forty years earlier dark-eyed children used to sleep.
The nuns went quiet and one of them put her soft hand on my shoulder. They took me to a library, which was down a long, sunless hallway. Julek was sitting there, browsing in books. When he saw us, he asked me to hurry up sightseeing around the convent before dusk fell. The hands of an antique clock hanging opposite the entry showed a late afternoon hour.
“Sister, could you search the library for logs written during or after the war? Do you have a list of Jewish children who were hidden at your convent?” I asked the Mother Superior. She hesitated for a second but soon opened the bottom door of an old bookcase. She firmly took hold of a thick, oblong notebook and placed it on the table. Cautiously and fearfully, I opened it. I felt that I was putting my hands in an electric socket and plugging myself into the power source. The yellowed pages of the notebook contained children’s last names, dates of birth, and the day of their departure from the convent. A lot of them came to the convent before the outbreak of the war. I skimmed the names on each page. The years 1937, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943… my fingers kept turning pages while my eyes were photographing all the names. I turned the last page and briskly closed the notebook. I took it in my arms and pressed it against my heart.
The calm voice of the nun came to me from afar. “It’s a pity you didn’t find anything. In those years, you had to be very careful. The Sisters probably knew you were Jewish and didn’t write your name in the log.”
My brain was working feverishly… this moment wouldn’t come back, I wouldn’t return to this place. Open the log, open it once more. I tried to make my voice sound calm so as not to reveal my emotional turmoil. I put the log on my knees and opened it to the place where I had left my finger after I had closed the notebook.
“Here, this is my name, Alicja Herla, arrived at the convent in 1943, can you see?”
“You are Alicja Herla?” The Mother Superior was pleased. “That’s wonderful you found your name. That’s what they called you during the war? But your name sounds a bit German, doesn’t it?”
“German?“ I asked, repeating out loud: “Alicja Herla, Alicja Herla.”
Julek’s voice reached me from a distance. “It’s getting dark, the roads are slippery, and we’d better get a move on.” But I couldn’t stop reading out loud that one line that summed up a chapter of my life. The Mother Superior asked, “Would you mind writing down a few words in our convent’s chronicle? How do you feel now?” I ineptly jotted down a few words in the language I hadn’t used in writing for so many years: “After forty years, I’ve returned to the place which for me was a heaven on earth in the midst of hell.”
We were back in the car and Julek, whistling quietly, started the engine. From a distance, I noticed a young nun hurrying in our direction. She was holding a brown envelop from which she took out a letter. Her hand was trembling. “Many years ago, a ward of our convent sent us a box of oranges with this letter. The letter was signed off with: Alinka. We wrote her several times asking for her last name, in vain. Her handwriting was similar to that in the note you’ve put in our chronicle.” I glanced at the letter dated 1964. At that point, I had still kept quiet.
Julek couldn’t accompany me to Ostrowiec—my hometown—so he sent a friend. En route, we passed the cities whose names were stuck in the memory-dictionary of my small family saved from the inferno of the war. My mother was born in Radom. She’d made a lot of visits to Ostrowiec to see her fiancé before he became her husband. She took the same road that we were driving right now in the old rickety cab. A narrow road of about sixty kilometers led from Radom to Ostrowiec. The landscapes looked as if they were taken straight out of the family album. You could see small wooden houses on both sides of the road. Their chimneys jutted out from tar roofs and spewed out whitish smoke. The farmers shuffled slowly behind a plow drawn by a horse. Zwoleń was the birthplace of my uncle who had moved to Palestine even before the war broke out.
My father scoured Rudnik in search of the remaining members of his brother’s family. They had perished in Treblinka and Auschwitz. After these trips, he’d come back to the studio apartment that he rented after the war because our apartment had been taken over by strangers. He’d lock himself in it for an entire day of fasting. As a little girl, I thought that my father had gone mad with grief. The sounds that came from the room were terrifying and filled with anger. Later I understood that my father was settling scores with God.
As the years passed, my father couldn’t find comfort in the new homeland. He refused to bring more children into a world with no God, and decided not to re-marry. During holidays, when both of us were sitting at the table in our apartment in Haifa, he used to say, “You see this room? If all of them were alive, we’d have to knock down that wall and connect the two rooms so we could put in a big table for the whole family. Eighty people were wiped off the face of this earth, but the world keeps on revolving as if nothing happened. Do you know how many cousins you had?”
I didn’t, and I dared not ask. I didn’t know the names of my father’s brothers, their wives, or my cousins. I didn’t even dare ask about them when I thought of commemorating them in the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Institute. I was afraid that if I asked, my father would tell me how their lives ended. At night I saw them forced into big bathhouses, naked and embarrassed. Some kept a glimmer of hope in their eyes—despite horrific stories they’d heard—that in a second, their cold bodies would be washed down with streams of hot water. I thought of the children shoved chaotically between the legs of the adults. I saw the distorted and horrified faces of adults and children who, instead of a stream of water, would slowly start hearing the screams and wheezing of the first people suffocated with gas. How long did they suffer before they died? In this horrible crowd, did they manage to lift their children up and take them in their arms? Gripped by fear, I’d turn on the light in my room to chase these thoughts away.
It started raining when we reached Ostrowiec. It was that gray and annoying drizzle as if an invisible hand were pouring dishwater through a clogged strainer. Looking around with curiosity, I trudged through mud. Despite the foul weather, there were a lot of passers- by treading carefully on the sidewalk so as not to slip and fall into a puddle. The numerous puddles looked like old rags scattered on the sidewalk. I started giving directions to my chauffeur on how to get to the streets I knew, but he didn’t need my assistance. He took me to the old market as if he had known the place. He even drew my attention to a tall concrete monument put in the middle of the square.
“This commemorates the Poles who sacrificed their lives for their country,” he said. “Poles?” I asked, taken aback. “The Germans brought Jews here before sending them off to die at the old Jewish cemetery, where they were pushed into the pits that they had been forced to dig,” I answered, my voice raised. “And Jews aren’t Poles?” he asked, surprised. “Maybe they didn’t fight as much as we did, but like anybody they deserve our respect after their death. Everyone’s equal before God, aren’t they?”
I got out of the cab and walked up to a group of elderly people standing at the edge of the square. In the past, the square turned into a market place twice a week. The local farmers would bring their produce for sale. Now the square was deserted and the monument in the middle of the market looked like the last tooth in the mouth of a lonely old man.
I approached a group of old men and asked: “Did any of you live in Ostrowiec before the war?” My question interrupted their conversation. They surrounded me, eyeing me suspiciously. “Who are you? How do you know Polish? What are you looking for here? Why do you have two cameras?” I was peppered with questions. The driver came to my rescue. “This lady is a Jewish tourist from Israel. She was born in Ostrowiec and is looking for people who knew her father.”
“And what was the name of that Jew?” one of the old men asked, excessively drawing out the last word. “Alterman, Mosze Alterman,” I interjected. “Moszik Alterman, the one who had a furniture shop!” the old man blurted out joyfully. Before I had time to react, he came close to me and shook my shoulder. Later, he held my hand and pressed it hard against his chest. I could feel the heart of the old man fluttering like a bird that had gotten out of a cage. I stood there, listening to its beat. “Do you know who I am? Hamer, Hamer the baker, and the woman who’s coming our way is my wife. I was a baker and during the war, I tossed bread over the fence of the ghetto. I knew your father well. He had such a gorgeous wife! I heard that they murdered her a few days before the war ended. It’s a shame, she was a beautiful girl. And what about your father? Is he alive?”
“My father is alive, but today he’s an old man who has never been the same after his experiences in Auschwitz. He never remarried,” I replied, quite touched. “Stefa, Stefa, come quick and see who we have here!” he yelled to his wife, who was approaching us with a slow, heavy step. Again, I had to put my hand on the old woman’s heart. When she felt my touch, she rested her head on my chest and started weeping. I pulled paper tissues out of my purse and dried her tears. We felt as if we had both come back from a loved one’s funeral. “I have a heart condition and I shouldn’t get upset, but this is like a bolt from the blue. I remember you as a little girl with black hair and shining eyes.”
Hamer took us by my parents’ house. From there, we went to the church that took me in after I left the convent. I continued to fervently pray there even after I had been transferred to the Jewish Orphanage, where I heard the word “Stalin” for the first time. I loved Jesus as much as Stalin, and perhaps the latter even more. One day, an unknown hand took down the image of Jesus hanging on the wall above my bed and thumbtacked a picture of Stalin up in its place.
I didn’t hide my feelings, and every night I’d kneel before the portrait of the mustached leader to pray as I was taught at the convent. But one evening, when I was praying, one of my friends whispered in my ear, “Stalin doesn’t like prayers. If you want to continue praying, I can lend you my crucifix.” She opened her little fist and for a second, I saw a tiny silver cross on a thin chain resting in her hand. Every evening, we knelt by my bed and prayed to the little cross lying on the pillow. I don’t remember how long I prayed for. The Jewish educators, who came back from the Soviet Union, washed our young brains with the wonderful ideology of the “friendship of nations.” Soon, the place of the Madonna with her infant son in her arms was taken by Father Stalin and Mother Russia.
Hamer, who hurried down Kościelna Street, was pointing to the houses along the way and telling us about their Jewish owners. He listed their names and added with precision when and where the few survivors had gone. Many of them left for Palestine but most went to Canada. From time to time, their descendants flew over to visit their place of origin.
“Now, I will take you to the Jewish cemetery,” he said. “Only a handful of gravestones are left by the fence. Most are damaged but you can still make out the names. The others were used by the Germans as paving stones in the town. Now there are plans to turn the cemetery into a playground. The old beech hasn’t been cut down and the mass grave is underneath it. This is where the Jews from Ostrowiec who were murdered by the SS are buried.” He made the gesture of a knife cutting a throat. “What can I tell you? It’s better not to remember those days. I was the ‘ghetto baker’ and I slipped fresh bread to Jews. That was quite a feat! I continuously endangered myself. Every day, we put our lives at risk but I was young and I wasn’t afraid. I knew all the Jews from Ostrowiec. We pitied the small children. They were thinner and thinner every day. All you could see was their eyes, huge and black as coal.”
Every now and then, Hamer’s wife, breathing heavily, wiped her forehead with a yellowed cloth. She leaned in to her husband and whispered something in his ear. “You absolutely must have tea at our place. You’ve been going around for hours in this cold and you surely haven’t had anything to drink. Alterman’s daughter is a special guest, once every blue moon…”
“Soon, it will get dark and I’ll have to go back to Warsaw.” I tried wriggling out of the invitation. “No, no, we have a surprise for you, a great surprise. We live just around the corner.” The alley where we turned from the street seemed familiar to me. I pointed to a rusty signboard hanging on a single nail. “After the war, my father lived here,” I whispered in the old woman’s ear. “Your father lived at number 13, and we at number 2. Come inside,” said Hamer, and he pulled me towards the staircase. Climbing up the creaky stairs, I could smell potato soup and sauerkraut. Stefa, who seemed to have shed her years and weight, was running up the stairs like a young girl. She pulled a huge key out of her coat, unlocked the door, which hadn’t seen fresh paint in years, and turned on the light.
I was hit with a sharp odor, similar to the fumes from zoo cages, except this one was warm and humid. What I saw was like an image straight out of a documentary about the life of peasants in an abandoned Eastern European village. On the right side of the room was a tiled stove the color of strong tea. Slices of stale bread crammed between scrunched-up pieces of newspaper were sticking out of the crevice between the wall and the stove. By the stove, a glass of tea with cigarette butts was standing on a small table covered with a newspaper. The loaf of bread from which the core had been picked out opened its mouth menacingly as if in warning of any possible attempt at cleaning up. Tossed comforters, pillows, and heaps of rags lay scattered on a wide bed, which took up most of the room. They looked like old tatters pulled out of a street dump. A wooden crucifix was hung up on the left wall. Underneath, a green jar with artificial flowers was placed on a shelf. A hairbrush and a comb lay on the side. Two white rabbits roamed around the floor, the only creatures in this place that weren’t disgusting. My skin crawled at the thought of drinking tea from one of the glasses on the table and taking sugar scooped out from some old rag.
“I really must go to relieve the driver. I promised I wouldn’t take more than eight hours of his time,” I said. “It’s gotten dark and my friends will start worrying.”
“Hold on a second, you haven’t seen the main thing.” With one dramatic sweep, Hamer emptied the double bed from all the objects lying on top of it. Everything fell down on the floor. At that point, I could see the headboard and the railing of the cherry wood bed made by the hand of an artist. The decluttered piece of furniture looked like a diamond in the middle of a dump. I still couldn’t figure out what I had to do with this bed but Hamer didn’t let me think for too long.
“This is your parents’ bed, it’s from their workshop. Your father gave it to me in exchange for bread. One day when I brought bread to the ghetto—this was at a time when I was still allowed to enter—he said: take the bed, it’s taking up too much space. Two more families were added to our apartment and we have to sleep on mattresses.” I took the bed frame and left them the mattresses. That’s how I saved this piece of furniture from the SS-men.”
Suddenly, every part of my body started aching. It felt like I had fever. I whispered to the driver to get me out of Hamer’s apartment. When we were downstairs and I took a breath of fresh air, the young driver said, “You have nerves of steel! Honestly, I’m not crazy about driving people around their old homes or apartments. A week ago I took three Jews to Radom. They’d come from America. During the ride, the man sat in silence but the mother and the daughter couldn’t hold back tears. It was painful to watch. But you seem to listen and observe, you may look a little blue but you’re not crying.” I was, but my tears were falling inwards.
After returning to Warsaw, I found the companions of my trip sitting in the hotel lobby. Overnight, their faces darkened and showed weariness and exhaustion. The intense program of visits at the places of torment and death started to weigh on the mood of our group. The younger participants, born in Israel, confronted the reality of what they had learned about the Holocaust from literature and university lectures. I also felt that I understood more than before. But I forced myself to write down my impressions and document what I saw and heard on camera. I suspected that after returning home, I’d wake up from the agonizing dream in which, in a moment of weakness, I had decided to participate, and then everything but fragments of images and experiences would be erased from my memory.
My worn-down body signaled to me with strange aches that I was coming down with the flu. I had always been proud of my immune system. And now, when time was slipping through my fingers and every day could bring new emotions, I would have to stay in bed! I hadn’t managed to visit the last destination of my trip—the Orphanage in Helenówek, which back then, opened its caring arms to around one hundred twenty Jewish children, the remains of the families that had been obliterated.
My cousin with the face of an angel took me straight from the convent to the Orphanage near Warsaw. On a sunny summer day in 1945 the teacher called me to her room, and in a quiet but firm voice she told me that no one was going to collect me because my entire family had perished during the war. The joy of living in a house without cellars and having lots of tasty food was so great that I didn’t dare ask for such “luxuries” in life as a mother and father.
A month went by and once again I was called to the room of my beloved teacher. The woman washed my face, re-did my braids, and announced with a solemn voice that my “father” was coming to visit. An alarm went off inside me, as it had done many times during the war. My teacher held my hand tightly and I followed in silence, shuffling my feet and looking around for a way to escape. A few minutes later we arrived at the principal’s office.
Three men were standing in the doorway: two tall and elegant ones beaming with confidence, and an old man between them, leaning on crutches. His body was swollen and his head was hanging low. Weary eyes set in the sockets of a shrunken, yellow skull looked at me imploringly. His gaze reminded me of that of beggars who sometimes visited the convent where I was staying during the war. The man was mumbling some words, but the sounds of that language were completely foreign to me.
I ran out and hid under the bed in the orphanage’s clinic. After seeing my father for the first time, the moment I heard the wailing of parents who came in search of their lost children I would hide in the cellar. I don’t know who decided about my transfer to the Orphanage in Helenówek near Łódź. The teachers of the institute near Warsaw, who had experienced the horrors of the war and the Holocaust in person, were sensitive to the needs of each child and understood that it would be much better for me to be closer to my cousin.
I loved my cousin Zosia with all my heart. She was beautiful, young, and didn’t look Jewish at all. After being released from the concentration camp in Auschwitz, she decided to settle down in Łódź. She didn’t have it in her to return to her hometown in Ostrowiec, where all that was left of her relatives was a mass grave at the Jewish cemetery by the beech tree.
Visiting the places where I’d spent my childhood years awoke dormant longings and memories of the pain of solitude. I stopped a random cab and asked the driver to take me to Helenówek. Helenówek was a small town near Łódź. It was surrounded by a forest and fields of grain. The Orphanage was located in three luxurious buildings. Before the war, they had served the same function. It was supported by Chaim Rumkowski, the man who became infamous for his controversial activity in the Łódź ghetto. On the way to Helenówek, we went past the empty Bałucki Market.
From the nooks and crannies of my memory, I pulled out the image of the same market, filled with an enthusiastic, boisterous crowd. The people surrounded the gallows standing in the middle of the square. From afar, I could see the body of Biebow, the cruel administrator of the Łódź ghetto. It was dangling from a thin rope. After the war, he had been sentenced to death by hanging.
To reach the Orphanage in Helenówek, you had to take a tram for another twenty kilometers. A narrow path through thickets led to the forest. The barracks of the Russian soldiers, who filled up orphans’ pockets with sweets, were put in a large clearing. With my mouth filled with candy and forest fruits, I approached the open area. You could see from afar the outlines of the Orphanage. The forest path turned into a sandy, wide pathway concealed by the fields of grain, which gave crops the height of a 12-year-old child.
The appearance of the fields changed with the seasons. In the winter the area between the forest thickets and the Orphanage would be transformed into a carpet of snow at times reaching two meters in height. At the edge of the field, the institute’s employees hollowed out a narrow path, which the children could take to get home. At that point, I felt as if I were walking down the hallway of a palace made of snow, whose tall walls surrounded me on both sides, with a swathe of gray sky looking down on me.
In the spring the green fluff of the sprouting grain peeked out from piles of snow. Around that time we weren’t allowed to take the shortcut through the field so as not to damage the rising crops. We had to circle around the area from the south, which doubled the route. In the summer, the tall ears of cereal, heavy with the weight of the grains, invited us to seek shelter from the grim eye of the farmer, the field’s owner.
A few of us could have lost our lives for taking such shortcuts. Several enraged peasants with scythes chased after the children, and they could have gotten carried away. In the fall, after the harvests, the peasants were pleased with the fruit of their work and allowed the children to roam and play in the cereal stubble. It was a real joy for me. I walked around the fields, which looked like shaved hedgehogs, and with my eyes glued to the ground, I searched for lost treasures.
One of the Orphanage’s guards, a former soldier of the Red Army, volunteered to guard the buildings of the Orphanage from potential pogroms or attacks or from Zionist messengers who loitered around the Orphanage’s fence, trying to steal the children and send them to Israel.
Once he told us a story. “Can you see these fields, Children?” he asked. “These fields are littered with golden coins. Do you know, my children, how these coins ended up on the peasants’ fields? When the Germans took Jews to the Łódź ghetto, they also tried to move the children from the Orphanage in Helenówek there. Before you arrived here and before the scary war started, this used to be an orphanage for Jewish children whose parents had died of diseases and poverty. Not like your parents who were killed by the Germans. And when the teachers walked through these fields along with the orphans, everyone cried the entire way to the Łódź ghetto and their tears soaked into the ground. And when the children didn’t return to the orphanage, God turned their tears into golden coins. Since that time, the local peasants have been plowing this soil deep, deep and thorough, in search of the golden treasure. They can’t find the coins but the earth is grateful for such good care and produces wonderful crops. Do you know who finds these coins? You, only you Jewish orphans.”
I only understood the ending of that little story while the beginning scared us so much that we made it into a story about thieves who had stolen a treasure from the Germans and only the orphans had the right to look for it. Once I brought a coin which I had gotten from my father and I declared solemnly that I had found it in the field.
“Silly,” said one of the girls, “ this isn’t a coin of the children from the ghetto. Those were gold.”
“We’re here, can you hear me?” the driver said. “You slept the whole way.” The harsh voice of the driver pierced my thoughts. He opened the door of the car and answered my questions with ostentatious hostility and impatience. “This isn’t an orphanage but a refuge for young criminals. You don’t like it? Neither do the bandits. You say it used to smell of pears and apples here, and I’ll say it stinks here.”
“There must be some misunderstanding. We’re in the right place but the houses are different. It’s impossible that the place of my childhood could be so devastated. These are not the same houses. They were filled with children and you could hear their laughter, and everything around bloomed and glistened. Out of the bunkers and cellars, we moved straight to the palace, which was right here. Who would destroy it and turn it into rubble?”
The driver offered me a cigarette and lit one himself. “You’re wasting your time and causing yourself heartache,” he said. “I heard that a long time ago Jews who had gotten loads of money from America lived here. It might have been a paradise then. But now there’s no one who’d send a little money this way. Strangers took our money. Not Jews. There’s no point talking about it, a waste of breath. They took everything. Our forests and fields. Our coal and iron. And what did we get in exchange? Vodka and lard. And a chance to wave little red flags around on May 1. You’re not getting out of the cab? It hurts, doesn’t it? Understandable. You come from a far-away country because you miss it here, and what do you see? Misery and ruins. You look tired. I’ll take you back to the hotel, you could use a nightcap.”
Pressed into the seat of the cab, I went quiet. The driver tried to cheer me up and turned on the radio. It played a love song. I turned for a second, hoping to suddenly see the house from my dreams but the ruins were a harsh reminder of their existence. The broken windows looked like eyes filled with scorn and irony while the front gate sent its crooked, mean smile my way.
In the evening I was back at the hotel. I needed to be alone to return to the memories that are stirred in an adult when they think about their childhood. At that point I wasn’t capable of comprehending the scale of both the misery and miracle that I’d experienced in life. I only managed to tap lightly at the first layer of my memories. I still hadn’t cut through to the layer of oblivion. In 1991 I returned to Poland for the second time. Seven years had passed since my first visit and my recollections about it lay dormant in Jerusalem in a drawer between the pages of my memoir.
My children had “left the nest” to build their own families and homes. I was more at peace with my life and ready to reconcile with the past, this time without any fear. After what I had seen in communist Poland, I felt that I was lucky because I was spared fifty years of suffering. I had spent my life by the Mediterranean Sea, where the sky is blue and cloudless most of the year.
There was yet another experience waiting for me on my second visit to Poland, in the repository of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. In a dusty box, I found 800 pages on the Jewish children who had been transferred to orphanages at the end and after the war, thanks to the Central Jewish Committee in Poland. These files contained the war and post-war biographies of the children.
My trembling hands turned the pages and photographs of hundreds of children who smiled at me with a smile from my distant childhood. Suddenly, I found the name Zajdenberg Lea, and in parenthesis—Alina Herla. A picture of a 7-year-old girl was glued on the left. She had short hair bound with a wide ribbon which held up her delicate hair. This photograph confirmed that during the war I was dressed up as a boy. The hair, which had grown a little since the end of the war, framed the face of a girl so curious about life. This was one of the pages belonging to an institution that documented the biographies of the saved children.
This discovery provided me with the missing pieces of my past. What I couldn’t drag out of my silent father I learned from my beloved teacher at the Jewish Orphanage, Lunia Gold. She left behind information about my childhood.
She wrote: “Until the liquidation of the ghetto, she lived with her parents in Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski. In 1942 a Catholic took care of her and placed her in a convent in Brwinów. After the liberation, a Jewish friend took her from the convent and brought her to the Orphanage in Zatrzebie. The father is alive. The mother was taken by the Germans and there is no information about her. No siblings.”
Now I know. The circle is complete, but what about the hand? The hand that searched for the grasp of the mother’s hand froze in mid-air…
This is a fragment of Lea Balint’s book on children without identity. The book was slated to be published in 2008 in Israel.