Maria Perlberger-Schmuel, born in 1933
“They’re Jews, Don’t Look in That Direction!”
We lived in Wieliczka. Everything was ready—school supplies, book bag, and new and freshly-starched smock. But on September 1, all those things were quickly forgotten. War! A strange, ominous word, but in some demonic way—fascinating. Everyone at home was busy taping the windows, but I was most interested in the flashlights with darkening glass filters on them (you could change the colors to yellow, green, and blue). In a word—a great toy!
Wieliczka is a village on the outskirts of Kraków, well-known as a tourist attraction because of its salt mines.
I was walking on the street with Papa—suddenly we heard muffled explosions, as if someone were opening soda pop bottles one after another. It was an aerial battle. Several airplanes were circling—and at first, nothing. Only there were these white puffs of smoke around them. Suddenly one flipped over and, like a bird that had been shot, began spiraling downward. Smoke was coming out of its tail. And so it fell, trailing a plume of black smoke behind it. Two others calmly flew off. Already on the first day of war German airplanes were flying over our city. I don’t know and I don’t remember what all happened after that. Some conversations, deliberations, should we run away—or should we not—and suddenly, we too, like the others, found ourselves on the road. Our first stop was a peasant’s cottage. Plenty of others like us were there—refugees. Whether we were there a week or only a day, I don’t know. Mama decided to return with me to town; the men, including Papa, continued on. The roads were full. Carts, bundles, horses, and crowds; masses of people were walking, everybody headed in a different direction, just to keep moving, to escape. Suddenly, an airplane appeared in the sky, dived low, and simply began strafing this human mass with its machine gun. Nearby, a soldier in a dirty, wrinkled uniform began to shoot (from a regular rifle!) at the airplane. People began screaming at him that he was endangering everyone, so he stopped. Mama dragged me down into a ditch, and we lay there, curled up. The airplane flew off as suddenly as it had appeared.
We returned to our apartment. At about that time, the new authorities issued an order to hand in all radio sets, weapons, etc. The penalty for not turning over these things was severe. Mama decided not to give up our radio. She hid it (how naive!) behind the wardrobe. The deadline for turning in radios had already passed long ago. One day someone rang the doorbell. They were German soldiers. “You haven’t handed in your radio,” they said in German. Without a word, Mama took the radio from behind the wardrobe (in their presence) and handed it to them. They didn’t yell; they even said, “Thank you”—and left.
Suddenly, the mood at home became secretive. I was not allowed to enter the bedroom, and then Mama sent me off to my aunt’s. Eventually, the mystery was solved. Papa had come back from his attempt to escape, but nobody was supposed to know about it. This was a time of uncertainty. For the time being, Papa decided to leave town, where everyone knew him, and move in with his sister in Kraków. Mama rented a peasant’s cart, Papa was covered with straw, and in this way, he was taken to Kraków.
A few days later Mama told me that I, too, would be going to Kraków, to Grandma’s. I was also taken in a peasant’s cart; by then Jews were not allowed to travel by train. Mama returned home, and I stayed with Grandma, alone without my parents for the first time. After a few weeks I returned home. I attended our local school. That part of Poland was then already called the General Government. Schools were under the control of the German authorities. There were only two or three of us Jewish girls in the class. One day, our teacher told us that she would take us (i.e., the Jewish girls) home personally. The rest of the class was bursting with envy. “Well, those Jewish girls are really in good with the teacher!” We went home. Our teacher talked to Mama for a long time in the sitting room.
After she left, Mama told me that the schools were probably going to be closed for the winter, since after all, it was war, and there wasn’t enough fuel. That’s exactly how it was during the First World War when Mama herself was a pupil. During the following days, girls from school came over and reported what they had been studying that day. “How can they be learning, if the schools are closed?” It was only then that I found out the truth. The schools were not closed; it was only that Jews could no longer attend.
The General Government was the area of Poland occupied and governed by the Germans but not formally annexed to the German Reich (as were territories closer to Germany). It was divided into four districts—Warsaw, Kraków, Radom, and Lublin.
At that time, we still had with us our Catholic maid—Józia. This Józia often took me with her to church, even bought me a rosary and a prayer book. She told me that any Christian could baptize anyone who really wanted it. Because that was just what I wanted, I convinced her to baptize me in church. She sprinkled me with holy water, and from that time on, I considered myself a genuine Catholic. Once I ran into a group of children, who, as usual, began to call me names, “Jew, Jew!” I told them that I wasn’t a Jew anymore, because I had gotten baptized, but I asked them not to tell my parents. From that time on I had no peace. One of the girls constantly followed me, demanding that I give her dolls, books, and toys, saying, “If you don’t, I’ll tell your mama that you’re a Catholic now.”
Around that time, the Germans requisitioned one of our rooms as quarters for one of their officers. He turned out to be a relatively peaceful man. He held long conversations with Papa. Once he said that all Jews would be shipped off to Madagascar. He was later transferred, and no one else was assigned to us afterward.
Days, weeks, and months passed. Rumors spread that the Germans were going to establish a ghetto in Kraków where they would confine all the Jews. At that time, many Jews from Kraków and vicinity came to our town to avoid being enclosed in the ghetto. All these new arrivals tried to find a place for themselves to live. There were lots of them everywhere. Suddenly, Mama’s whole family—my grandparents, her two sisters, and their families—descended upon us. We turned over most of the apartment to them; some of our furniture was moved to the attic. The apartment, once spacious, became overcrowded. The atmosphere was poisoned. There were no open quarrels, but each person looked askance at the other.
It was 1941 already. The Germans then ordered all Jews twelve years old and over to wear armbands with the Star of David. Because this order did not yet apply to me, I could continue to walk freely about town. I had only one concern—that my family might find out that I was going to church. One time Papa asked me, “Marysia, what’s the story about this church?” but that was the end of it.
One of our neighbors was a certain Mr. Grzywacz. A large white plaque proclaimed, CERTIFIED SURVEYOR, FELIKS GRZYWACZ. I didn’t know then what “certified surveyor” meant, but it sounded important and impressive. Out of the blue, the surveyor declared himself a Volksdeutscher. Germans were constantly hanging around there, the Grzywacz family were always throwing noisy parties, and finally, some German officer was quartered there. This one hated Jews—not only in theory and along propaganda lines. When he saw a Jew, he would simply go berserk, foam at the mouth, scream, yell, and curse. Getting through the stairway then became a real problem. We had to sneak through quietly, look all around, and only then, when we succeeded in going down and out the gate or in and up the staircase without running into the beast, only then was it possible to breathe freely until the next time. Around that time I found a real friend, Wanda Duszczyńska, whose mother was a friend of my parents. Wanda was from Warsaw and had been living in Wieliczka with her mama and grandma only for a short time. Her father had remained in Warsaw. Wanda lived in a neighborhood called Zadory, in a small house with a garden that served as an excellent place to play. When winter came, the Germans ordered the Jews to surrender all the furs they owned. We only handed in our fur collars and gave all our other furs to Mrs. K., a doctor’s wife, for safekeeping.
Spring came. Again, Wanda and I played in the garden. I was about nine then; Wanda was about a year older. We were interested in very “adult” and forbidden subjects—i.e. such as how children came into the world. The theories we then came up with were indeed original! But in the end we didn’t solve the puzzle.
We exhausted the subject, and, bored with it, we went back to our dolls. These weren’t just ordinary dolls—they were cut out of magazines, with fantastic, impossible names—but the possibilities for play were endless. We used to leave all those other “real” dolls at home, forgotten. However, when I turned nine (this was my last birthday at home), I was delighted with a gift from my parents. It was a doll, a beautiful “pre- war” doll. She had blond hair, a blue dress, and closed her eyes and said, “Mama!” She was so beautiful it was a shame to take her out of the box. I never had another chance to play with her.
It was then that I discovered the world of books. I kept company with Anne of Green Gables, I was sold and chased, together with the black slaves from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I traveled from the Apennines to the Andes with an Italian boy, the hero of a story in the book, The Heart (�).
The Heart was a popular book by Edmondo de Amicis.
The summer of 1942 arrived and with it, vacation. Mrs. Zapiórowa, my teacher, gave Mama a report about my progress in studies. She even told her that I was at a higher level than other children my age (of course, she didn’t say this in my presence, but I already had big ears then). This was about the time when rumors of an impending “action” against Jews began circulating. When the rumors became widespread, we decided to make a hideout for our family on Papa’s side. The courthouse building belonged to us. One of its wings had been empty since the beginning of the war. At that time, one of Papa’s sisters, who had come from Kraków to avoid being closed up in the ghetto, lived there with her children. Some of her furniture was moved into one of the empty rooms of the building. It was decided to convert this room into a hideout. Its tall door was to be covered with a huge cupboard. The court beadle, who lived downstairs, was to try to get food for everyone hiding there.
We all gathered there, and the door was barricaded with the cupboard. It was awful. It seemed like there was no air, that the room was overcrowded, even though there weren’t that many of us there. It was the blocked door that intensified the feeling of overcrowding and fear. The fear of the adults also infected us children. Everyone talked and talked, and I listened without understanding. They said something about the possibility of shooting, of the building being set on fire—the fear stuck in my throat and choked me. The men began practicing jumping out of the window that faced the orchard—where I used to play. After a few practice jumps, they came to the conclusion that if the building were surrounded, it would be of no use. There, outside the window, the sun was shining, bees were buzzing, and here, this fear, so terrible.
In the evening, the beadle came and said that we had to leave the place immediately or he would denounce us to the Germans. We all went to our respective homes. Mama wanted to ensure my safety somehow, so we went to Aunt N., one of Papa’s sisters. Deep despair reigned there. They paid no attention to me and talked about things I shouldn’t have heard, about poison having been prepared, about the fact that they were ready to take it.
My aunt’s son, Rysiek, was twenty already, so he was likely to be taken for forced labor. (Did they know by then what fate awaited those who weren’t taken for work?) Mama pleaded with him to take me with him as his own daughter (at the beginning, children of these workers were issued “cards of life”). Nobody was thinking logically anymore, because even if Rysiek had had children, then it certainly couldn’t have been a nine-year- old daughter! Because this plan seemed uncertain, we went back home. The streets looked so normal, like on any other day; the weather was beautiful, but here, in our hearts, were feelings of helplessness, despair, and—fear. From then on my family began saying that it would be safer to hand me over to a Polish family for “safekeeping” (like our furs?).
Wieliczka was the county seat. A few days before the action, all the Jews from nearby towns assembled there, as ordered by the Germans. There was no time to lose. It was decided that I would go to Mrs. Duszczyńska, and she would take me from Wieliczka to another town.
“Cards of life” were identity cards that gave the bearer certain rights—to get food and not be deported.
It was the last day before the planned action. Large posters plastered all over town proclaimed that all Jews should gather at the assembly point at a given hour. Anyone who stayed behind at home would be shot. Whoever hid a Jew would be shot. Whoever helped a Jew in any way would be shot. Mama prepared little pouches for the whole family, to be worn around the neck, and put some money in them. One of my aunts and her daughter had Aryan papers. All through the war they had moved about and traveled freely, but now, all of a sudden, they decided not to use those papers. Everyone was overcome by despair and completely resigned. It was already getting light outside when suddenly someone rang the bell. It was Mrs. Duszczyńska.
The Germans had reinforced their patrols and posted them all over the center of town. There, they gathered all the Jews from the other streets. However, my parents decided to remain in our apartment until the end. Papa broke down completely and began sobbing loudly. He no longer spoke, only cried. Mama, still trying to convince him to change his mind, pleaded with him.
I don’t know when I found myself on the stairs. Mama was leaning over the handrail and kept repeating, “Well, go already, go!” But I turned around one more time and exclaimed (but in a whisper), “Bye, Mama, run away!” “Yes, yes, we’ll run away, but go already, go!” and that was all. I managed to get out; nobody saw me. The streets were empty, not a soul anywhere. And then I started to run. I didn’t know that I was starting a new game—a game of hide-and-seek with death.
It was decided not to delay but to take me to Kraków early the next morning. I couldn’t fall sleep. It was quiet outside, but from time to time, I heard single shots—one, two—and then silence again. Only the dogs were barking, a regular canine concert. “What’s happening there?” I kept thinking. “Why this shooting?” My heart pounded like a jackhammer. Finally, exhaustion prevailed, and I fell asleep.
Early the next morning, Mrs. Duszczyńska woke me up. “My mother will take you to Kraków. We’ll dress you up like Wanda. She’ll stay home, but if any of the neighbors see you, they’ll think it is she who is going to Kraków with her grandma.” We were about the same height, only my braids were longer, but we had the same auburn colored hair. My braids were shortened. They dressed me in Wanda’s coat and her little hat. (It was good that the hat covered my eyes and nearly half my face!) We had to hurry. We were to take the first train to Kraków. Wanda’s grandmother took me by the hand, and we set out on our way.
It was a long way to the station. The streets were still almost empty. Suddenly, on another street, around the corner, I saw a mass of people, so dense that it almost didn’t seem to be moving. There was something unreal about it. No sound was coming from there, but when I looked more closely, I saw that this mass was moving, heading in some direction. I could even make out individual figures of women, children, and men, their bundles and suitcases. I didn’t understand what it was, so I asked Wanda’s grandmother. “They’re Jews, don’t look in that direction,” she said. So these were Jews, and I was not supposed to look in their direction. Obediently I turned my eyes away and didn’t look “there” anymore, even though the streets ran parallel.
Meanwhile, we were approaching the station, the traffic was increasing, people were rushing to the train from all directions, going to work. After all, it was a regular weekday. “They” were herded toward the freight train station. Then the streets diverged, and I couldn’t see them anymore. (From that day on “they” were the Jews, and “we” were the Poles, Christians…) It didn’t even occur to me that my parents might be there among them—after all, Mama had promised me that they would both run away. Wanda’s grandmother bought us tickets, and we entered a compartment. Fortunately, there wasn’t anyone there who might have known me. The train started moving. I crossed myself. What I had done in secret at home now became a necessity. Wanda’s grandmother made the mistake of asking, “Do you know how to cross yourself? Cross yourself!” It’s a good thing nobody heard.
One day, Mrs. Duszczyńska said that the birth certificate was ready and she would soon be taking me to Warsaw. The certificate (such an unimpressive- looking piece of paper) attested that Maria Teresa Nowakowska, born in Pińsk to Jan and Ludwika, née Gajewska, was baptized and inscribed in the parish books of the church of the Most Holy Virgin Mary in Pińsk. These were details I had to know by heart and be able to recite whenever asked. The day before leaving, Mrs. Duszczyńska came over, as usual, but started whispering secretively with the landlady, who looked at me with pity and sympathy. Later, I learned that Mrs. Duszczyńska told her my mother had died. She did it to somehow explain the fact that I was not going back home but rather to my aunt’s in Warsaw.
The train to Warsaw was to leave that evening. Mrs. Duszczyńska told me to call her “Aunt,” because “Mrs.” might raise suspicions. However, the word “aunt,” for someone who was not my aunt, stuck in my throat, so I addressed her as little as possible. Night fell. At some station, a bunch of German soldiers crowded onto the train. They took all the empty seats in our compartment. I was tired, my head was wobbly, my eyes wouldn’t stay open. Mrs. Duszczyńska propped me up in the corner, when suddenly, one of the soldiers said that I would be better off on one of the luggage shelves. “And how do you say ‘little girl’ in Polish?” he asked. He tried to repeat it, but it came out garbled. Then, concerned that I might be cold, he took off his military overcoat, wrapped me in it, and lifted me onto the shelf. I smiled at him as a sign of appreciation. Oh, if he had only known who I was! And so fell asleep. Mrs. Duszczyńska breathed more easily. Her dangerous ward slept wrapped up in a German soldier’s overcoat, and that meant a safe trip all the way to our destination. In the morning the train arrived at Warsaw Central Station. Mrs. Duszczyńska took me to a certain family in the Praga district. These were friends of Mrs. K., one of our neighbors in Wieliczka. I then found out that Mrs. K. would be the one to decide my fate from then on. I wasn’t happy about that; I had grown attached to Mrs. Duszczyńska, but I couldn’t choose my guardian. After a quick farewell with Mrs. Duszczyńska, who after all had to return, I was left alone once again.
Meanwhile, I had to get used to my new surroundings. The family consisted of an elderly woman and her two daughters, both single (and not very young). Out of the three, only one of the daughters, Wacława—who many years earlier had been Mrs. K.’s schoolmate—knew about my origins. The apartment was spacious, furnished in an unpretentious style and—to my delight—there was even a piano in it! Right away, the very first night I spent in Warsaw, there was an air raid. Loud bangs and explosions rocked the air; the entire house shook in its foundation, while I trembled from cold and fear. With every new explosion, I yelled, “Jesus! Mary!” (I thought that this way I would prove myself as undeniably “Polish”.) Eventually, things got quiet, and we all returned to the apartment. The first remark I heard from Miss Wacława, said in a sharp, accusatory tone, was “Polish children don’t yell like that!” (because in her eyes, I was not a Polish child). One day I told Miss Wacława that it was a good thing my first name, at least, didn’t have to be changed, because I was always called Marysia. To this she replied, “Really? And I thought your name was Sara, or maybe Rachela!” From that time on she began taunting me by mocking the way Jews butchered the Polish language. At first I “swallowed” these remarks; later I tried to defend myself by saying that in my family we spoke good Polish, not Yiddish, and that I didn’t even know one word in that language.
Nothing helped. On the contrary, she didn’t believe what I said and kept repeating her “attacks” in various ways. Meanwhile, it became clear that I hadn’t learned to lie well enough yet and missed giving myself away only by a hair. Some woman came to visit. I was introduced, of course, as Marysia Nowakowska. “Oh, I knew the Nowakowskis; perhaps it was your father. The one I knew was named Jan,” she said. I replied, nearly joyfully (my memory didn’t fail me—the birth certificate said “born to Jan …”), “My Papa’s name was also Jan!” So she said, “Yes, but that one had a brother.” I wasn’t prepared for this—I didn’t know yet how to improvise on the spot. I fell silent. Miss Wacława broke in, “Well, did you have an uncle?” “I don’t know,” I replied, nearly in tears. After the woman left, I got scolded. “You can’t hesitate, you have to be sure of yourself; answer quickly, no matter what!”
After that time I began to attach a great deal of importance to food (perhaps out of boredom?). I was simply hungry, which never happened at home, even during the war. There was a canary there, an ordinary yellow canary. Every day they placed a sugar cube between the bars of its cage. Once while I was alone in the room, that sugar cube began to tempt me. I took it out carefully, licked it, bit into it, and put it back between the bars of the cage. From then on, I bit off a piece of that poor canary’s sugar every day, until one day, Miss Wacława said, “Somehow, recently, the sugar of our canary has been melting in a strange fashion.” Naturally, I never touched the sugar again.
I waited. I knew someone would appear and take me from there. Perhaps I would be together with Mama? One day someone rang the doorbell, and—before they even opened the door—I knew it was about me. A woman with a pleasant expression on her face came in. She wanted to speak to Miss Wacława. After a few moments, I was summoned. “So this is the girl; she doesn’t look it.” (No, I didn’t “look it”; “not looking it” in those days meant not looking like a Jew.) “My name is Irena Ch. I have a daughter who will help you with your lessons. I am sure you will like being with us.”
When we walked out on the street, I gave my new guardian my hand, and for the first time in many weeks, I felt trust toward a stranger. We traveled through all of Warsaw by streetcar, from Praga to Koło. There was something nice in just the sight of the little, light-colored two-story houses there. The war, bombing—all that seemed quite far away. Built shortly before the war, this was a military neighborhood. Most of the homes were owned by officers like Mrs. Ch.’s husband, who, as a major in the Polish army, had been taken prisoner by the Germans.
We were welcomed by Wanda, Mrs. Ch.’s sixteen-year-old daughter, and Mrs. Zawadzka, her mother, an elderly woman whom I will from now on in this account call “Grandma”. Wanda dug up a thick volume of Płomyk, and with that she won me over completely. The autumn sun was still beating down. I sat on the stairs leading into the garden and read. I felt good. The next day I was introduced to all the neighbors. “The more relaxed you are, not avoiding people or acting afraid, the less they will speculate or suspect anything,” Mrs. Ch. told me.
Płomyk [small flame] was a children’s magazine.
There were two apartments in our building. We lived on the ground floor, while on the second floor the Cz. family lived with their two sons, one of whom, Janusz, was Wanda’s age, while the other, Zdzich, was a few years older. Their father, called “the Major” by everyone, had a bushy mustache, a deep voice—with which he reprimanded his sometimes unruly sons—and rather poor hearing. In the house next door lived a Mrs. G. with her eight-year-old daughter, Basia, who immediately invited me to play with her. That woman’s husband, an officer, was also a prisoner of war, as was the husband of another neighbor, Mrs. Kamińska, who often visited Mrs. Ch. Not one of these neighbors questioned where I came from, nor did they pry into who I was. I quickly became friends with Basia; we were constantly together.
A few days after I arrived in Koło, one of our more distant neighbors appeared in our house. She attacked Mrs. Ch., saying, “You are keeping a Jewish child! Yes, don’t deny it, I had a good look at her while she was playing; she made such Jewish gestures with her hands!” Mrs. Ch. kept her composure. “But, my dear woman, don’t say that! The other children won’t want to play with her!” The woman, taken aback by such a response, said nothing more and walked off.
Mrs. K. regularly sent money transfers for my upkeep. The winter passed. The snow melted; nature, paying no heed to storms stirred up by people, was waking to new life. It was April. Gentle spring breezes brought with them the joyful atmosphere of spring and the approaching Easter holidays. Once again I played with Basia in the garden.
Suddenly, news of the uprising in the Jewish ghetto broke out. The surrounding streets were blocked, and streetcars didn’t run near the ghetto wall anymore. Shots and explosions could be heard. The first plumes of black, dense smoke began rising over the ghetto. The underground press published reports confirming that the Jews were putting up armed resistance. There were even words of respect for the handful of diehards, but it was obvious that their struggle was hopeless. We went up on the roof but couldn’t see anything besides smoke. At night there was a huge red glow in the sky. The fighting in the ghetto lasted several weeks (the underground press gave regular accounts of the situation). Gradually, the smoke began thinning out and finally cleared completely. The fighting was over. Suddenly, the rumble of an explosion shook the city. The Germans had blown up the synagogue on Tłomackie Street, which was not even within the boundaries of the ghetto. This is how they sealed their “victory”.
I remember conversations and remarks made by people who visited us. These were mostly relatives of Mrs. Ch., occasionally acquaintances. Discussions would start about the then current Jewish topic. Somebody once said, “After the war we’ll have to forgive Hitler all the harm he did to the Poles. Just the opposite, he deserves a monument, because he freed Poland from the Jewish plague.” Mrs. Ch. disagreed, saying that what the Germans had done with the Jews was barbaric, an inhuman deed. “It was the only way to solve the Jewish problem—nobody else would have dared to do it; a strong hand was needed. Hitler, he’s a genius, perhaps an evil one, but a genius!” That was the response she got.
I listened and didn’t say anything—children didn’t take part in adult conversations. But from what I heard, I concluded that if I also talked like this, I would clear up any suspicions anyone might have regarding my origins. An opportunity soon presented itself. I was at a friend’s house. We were playing, when her mother came in and started talking about Jews, about how terrible it was when the Germans were burning the ghetto. Because no one talked about these things with children, I understood she wanted to find out who I was. In an indifferent tone, I responded, “Oh, they reproduce like rats; there will still be plenty of them left.” It helped.
One time our neighbor, Mrs. Kamińska, came over. She was very agitated. She told Mrs. Ch. something in a whisper and kept repeating, “Whoever heard of a nine-year-old child slashing his veins? It’s beyond human understanding.” After a while I found out what it was about. Between Koło and Żoliborz there was a young forest, planted just before the war. Children used to go there to play, and that day they found a little nine-year-old Jewish boy there, who had somehow managed to escape from the ghetto. The children were in for some fun! What a great game! They began taunting and threatening their victim with the Germans. They called him names—after all, they had been denied such “pleasure” for so long! The little Jew tried to run away, but the circle tightened. The bolder ones threw the first stones. He stopped running, sat down, took out a razor blade and slashed the veins of his wrists. The blood oozed out slowly and sank into the sand in big drops. Only then did the children back off—they ran back home to spread the “news”.
At that time Mrs. Ch. took in a boarder. It was an elderly lady who almost never left her room and even took her meals alone. Despite this, I managed to see her. I was struck by her ugliness. Her large nose and wide, down- turned mouth, with a protruding lower lip made her look like a frog. Days passed. Our boarder sat by the window under which I passed as I went out to the garden. One day she invited me into her room. She asked me whether I’d like to play cards with her. I tried to get out of it, but in the end I stayed. She taught me how to play “War” and “Sixty-six.” I, in turn, taught her the rules of the “Maritime Game”. From then on, a game with our boarder was part of the daily program.
Once, when I came in, I noticed she was reading a prayer book. At the first opportunity I said, “Our boarder is a Jew!” I apparently said it as a statement of fact, not a question, because Mrs. Ch. didn’t even attempt to deny it. She only asked, “How did you know?” To which I answered, “I saw her prayer book; it’s completely new, and ‘grandmas’ like her have well-used ones.” The woman had a son who was hiding somewhere else with his wife. Sometimes they both came over to see her, but these were short, dangerous visits. Then she’d again be alone for long days and weeks. In time I grew to like her; I even got used to her ugliness. The poor woman always tried to prolong our card games, but I was drawn to the outdoors to play.
Summer and vacation time arrived. In September I was supposed to go to school. A religious problem appeared—confession and first communion—all of this so I could later participate in school retreats. I told Mrs. Ch. the story of my baptism. She decided it was enough. However, as for confession and communion, it was decided that it would be safer if I received the sacraments in another parish. Here in Koło the priest knew everyone and also taught in the school. Indeed, I, too, was to become his student. I wrote my sins down on a piece of paper and went with Mrs. Anna to St. Alexander’s Church in Trzech Krzyży [Three Crosses] Square. It was dimly lit, quiet; there were burning candles, flowers, and the smell of incense. The priest patiently listened to my naive, childish sins, and, in the end, told me, heart to heart, not to sadden God by sinning. I decided that after the war I would convince my parents to also accept the Catholic faith. After all, this was the faith that had saved us!
One day I found Wanda and Mrs. Ch. conferring about something together. Suddenly Wanda turned to me and asked, “Marysia, would you like to join the Girl Scouts?” My heart quickened with joy; I couldn’t speak but nodded eagerly. Scouting! It was a part of the “real” underground, because scouting activity was secret and illegal. And so began new days, full of meaning. Scout meetings were held in a different place each time, so as not to arouse suspicions. A traveling amusement park came to Koło. Mrs. Ch. gave me money for the merry-go-round. The place was swarming with children. I took my place in line to buy a ticket. Suddenly, a man pointed his finger at me and said loudly and emphatically, “And this, ladies and gentlemen, is a mixture of Semitic blood!” What was I to do? Go back home? That would have confirmed his words! Feign surprise? Begin to defend myself? Now that would have raised real suspicion! I decided to pretend not to understand what he was talking about, that it didn’t concern me at all. The music played. The merry-go-round spun faster, faster. But the man stood off to the side, and pointing me out with his finger, stubbornly repeated, “This, ladies and gentlemen, is a real mixture of Semitic blood!” Finally, he got bored and walked off. I returned home and reported what had happened. “It’s good he only said ‘a mixture’ and not ‘pure Semitic blood,’” Mrs. Ch. said. “But perhaps you shouldn’t go to the merry-go-round anymore.”
I remember well those scorching last few days of July 1944 in Warsaw. Everyone knew that any day, any hour, something decisive was going to happen. From the direction of Praga, you could see columns of German soldiers streaming westward. They weren’t the same cocksure, confident Germans but dusty, tired remnants of what had once seemed an invincible army. Huge posters appeared on walls of buildings, appeals by underground organizations to the people of Warsaw, stating that although difficult days were still coming for the city, the moment of liberation was drawing near. The artillery fire at the front could already be clearly heard. Warsaw gossips were already telling each other that Russian tanks had previously been spotted in the area of Grochów.
Praga and Grochów are districts of Warsaw on the eastern side of the Vistula.
The Scouts were conducting alarm drills and checking equipment. A fragment of the song “Hey, Boys” took on a new relevancy. “Who knows whether tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, or already today, will come the order for us to go?” Crowds poured out into the streets to look at the retreating German army. “Look at the Krauts running away!” people laughed. “Hope you don’t make it to Berlin; hope you croak on the way,” a woman yelled. “They’ll put fire to your asses, you scum, you Antichrists!”
But the Germans walked on, not looking left or right. Even if they didn’t understand, they must have known what kind of farewell they were getting.
On the first of August, one sensed something unusual hanging in the air. It wasn’t noon yet when Wanda told me to carry a letter to Iśka (also a Girl Scout), to Chmielna Street, but she warned me to hurry and get back home before five o’clock. I didn’t take it too seriously, however, and, as usual, took my time. I didn’t find Iśka at home. Luckily, I met her on the street, so I handed her the letter, and happy to have fulfilled my assignment, I returned to the streetcar stop. As if out of spite, the No.1 left just as I arrived. I waited a long time for the next one, and when it finally came, the conductor announced that it would only go to Młynarska Street. He smiled mysteriously as he said it. As we passed Żelazna Brama [Iron Gate] Square, we heard the first shots. The streetcar rode on, not stopping anywhere. There were still quite a few people on the streets, but frightened by the shooting, they sought shelter in entryways. Everyone thought it was one of the frequent street round-ups. The streetcar, as the conductor had announced, reached Młynarska Street.
I was waiting for the next one, when suddenly, shots rang out around the corner. “It’s begun,” some woman said. “My husband went already this morning,” added another. Then I understood that it was the [Warsaw] Uprising. Taking advantage of the fact that I was alone and nobody was watching me, I took off along the street to see what “it” looked like. I had barely walked a dozen steps when suddenly—bzz, bzz—a bullet whizzed right by my ear, then another, then a whole series. I ducked into an entryway. It was dark there, but it turned out that the place was full of people seeking shelter. Everyone was talking about the situation. The uprising had already been going on for a couple of hours.
The news from the city was not good. The Germans had brought reinforcements into Warsaw to quell the uprising. It was now a battle (how uneven!) for every house, courtyard, or patch of street. The Germans called the insurgents “bandits” and treated them as such. There was no talk of any rights or consideration for prisoners—those who fell into German hands were shot to death. Stories were circulating about terrible “wardrobes” (projectiles capable of blowing away entire floors of a building). Their grinding noise reminded people of the sound of a wardrobe being dragged; that’s how they got their name. There were reports that the Bank of Poland building was burned down with its defenders inside.
Another week passed. Suddenly the streets of Koło swarmed with German soldiers. A van stopped at the corner. “Achtung! Achtung!” a voice rang out from the megaphone. “Attention! Attention! All Koło residents are to leave the quarter immediately!” Once again the streets of Koło filled with people heading into the unknown. This time there were already fewer of us, as some people had not returned after the previous deportation.
Suddenly, like a bombshell, came news that the Uprising had collapsed. General Bór had negotiated with the Germans and obtained their assurance that the insurgents would be treated like a regular army and, in accordance with those rights, would be taken prisoners of war. Mrs. Ch. inquired wherever she could which way the prisoners would be led out. She wanted to find out something about Wanda. She took me along with her, and so we walked through various roads, asking people whether they knew which way the Germans would be leading the insurgents out of Warsaw. It was drizzling. We walked around like this every day, returning home tired and wet—and without results.
General Bór – General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski was the commander of the AK [Home Army], the organized underground army in Poland that reported to the Polish government-in- exile in London.
Finally, someone told us, “They’re taking them along the road leading to Ożarów!” We went immediately in that direction. Already from far away we saw a crowd on the road; it was the insurgents! They walked proudly, white-and-red armbands on their sleeves—soldiers of the underground! The uprising had collapsed, but their spirit was triumphant. They were guarded by only a few Wehrmacht soldiers, who seemed tired and more disheartened than the prisoners they were supposed to guard. Just then the column stopped. We slipped into the ranks and asked about Wanda, who’d been a liaison. “What is her pseudonym?” This question threw us off. After all, we had no way of knowing what her insurgent’s pseudonym was.
White-and-red armbands – red and white are the colors of the Polish flag.
We searched like this for many hours; they kept walking by while we stood in the middle of the road, straining our eyes. In the evening we went back home. The next day, however, we went back out on the road. Crowds of insurgents kept on moving. Then suddenly, we heard a call from the crowd, “Marysia! Mama!” It was Wanda. A flood of words began. “Wandzia, run away, run away! They aren’t guarding you that closely, after all! We’re at Mrs. Cz.’s place!” Wanda hesitated. “I wanted to be taken prisoner like Papa.” “Yes, but we need you so much,” Mrs. Ch. pleaded. In the end, Wanda relented. She said she would run away before nightfall.
We got back to our place. Now began the hours of waiting and tension. Would she manage to escape? Late in the evening she arrived. That night nobody slept—we all sat around and listened to her stories about the Uprising.
Now events began to evolve rapidly. Mrs. Ch. decided to take her mother and Wanda to her family. However, they couldn’t take me with them. It was decided that along the way we would stop in Kraków, and Mrs. Ch. would go to Wieliczka and reestablish contact with Mrs. K. (contact had been interrupted at the outbreak of the Uprising). Before leaving, my braids were cut off, because, after all, there was no way I could take care of them. The trip was difficult. The passenger trains no longer ran on time—German military transports had priority. We had to transfer countless times. Sometimes we were pushed away from the carriages.
We reached Kraków. Mrs. Ch. immediately went to Wieliczka, while we stayed in the waiting room of the train station, which was full of travelers. After a few hours, Mrs. Ch. returned. Mrs. K. promised to come to Kraków the next day to take care of me. In the meantime, she sent me a note with a certain address. That was the place where I was to wait for her. It was already past curfew, so I could no longer go out into the town. Mrs. Ch.’s train was to leave in another hour, so I would have to spend the night there alone in the waiting room. I wanted something to delay the departure of that train, but it so happened that it arrived on time. A quick farewell, and they got into their compartment. Wanda stood in the window. Tears began to choke me again. “Well, Marysia, take care of yourself,” were Wanda’s last words to me, and the train began moving.
I was left alone in the crowd. The minutes, which sped by so mercilessly before their departure, now began to drag. The whole long night was ahead of me. I found a corner in which I could prop up my head against the wall and doze off until morning. I dragged my little backpack there and wrapped myself in my coat but couldn’t fall asleep. Suddenly, a Ukrainian in German service came up to me. It turned out that he spoke fluent Polish. He began questioning me about where I was coming from and where and to whom I was going. Then he asked me what school I had attended recently and what I had learned; he always posed the questions so that I couldn’t answer evasively. He kept returning to the same questions over again—where I lived, where my parents were and why I was alone, whom I was going to visit, where I went to school, and so on, over and over again. This is how I spent the night.
When normal street traffic began, I decided to leave. But, there was my Ukrainian again! I could feel him approaching, grabbing me by the arm. But he walked by. Only then did I realize that it was someone else entirely. I went to the address indicated on the note and rang the bell. A woman opened the door, looking at me suspiciously from head to toe. “Mrs. K. asked if you could let me wait here for her. She should be here shortly,” I mumbled. She let me into the kitchen. Again, I was flooded with questions. To avoid them, I enthusiastically began telling her stories about the Uprising. Hours passed, and Mrs. K. still hadn’t come. Finally, she arrived. We walked out on the street, and she began an angry harangue. “What am I going to do with you now? Couldn’t Mrs. Ch. have taken you with her? If I can’t find you a place, there will be no choice. I will go and hand you over to the Gestapo!” “No!” I responded.
She finally found me a place with a certain family. Nobody there knew who I was except for the daughter of the lady of the house, Miss Franciszka. She reminded me a little of Miss Wacława. Like her, she was a friend of Mrs. K.’s, was unmarried, and like Wacława, made similar remarks about Jews. I had to help with the housework and, what is worse, share the bed with Miss Franciszka. As for my education, it was naturally out of the question.
After a few weeks, further instructions arrived from Mrs. K. She indicated a certain address in the district of Podgórze where I should be taken because “her mama is there.” I wasn’t celebrating yet, but I did believe in the impossible. I thought that perhaps Mrs. K. couldn’t find another place for me and decided to take the risk and send me to where Mama was hiding. We finally reached the specified address. Once there, emotions overwhelmed me. I kept quiet, but my heart was pounding. In a moment, I was going to see Mama! The door opened. We were led into a room where a nice-looking older woman greeted us. Miss Franciszka said she had brought me at Mrs. K.’s request. Mama was nowhere in sight. I pulled Miss Franciszka by the sleeve and asked in a whisper, “But where’s Mama?” Miss Franciszka turned to our host, “Oh, yes, we were told that her mama was here, too,” but the woman denied it and added, “But if you pray ardently and sincerely, you’ll surely find her.”
Miss Franciszka left. Only then did I take a good look around the room. On all the walls and all the tables were holy pictures, crucifixes, and statuettes, because Mrs. Bereżyńska was very religious. She was a widow and lived with a housekeeper who was just as pious as she. And so I became more devoutly religious than ever before. I knelt and prayed ardently before going to bed. Until then nobody had really paid much attention to it, but here it seemed there was never enough of this praying. And so I prayed and read about the lives of saints, selected especially for me by Mrs. Bereżyńska.
Suddenly one day we were told to go down to the shelter immediately. The Russians were just outside Kraków. A few artillery shots and—silence. Suddenly, the rumble of an explosion shook the air. And again silence. The Russians had captured the city. This explosion was the retreating Germans blowing up all the bridges on the Vistula River. In the shelter, people were talking and talking. Suddenly someone said, “So now that the Russians have arrived, the Jews will probably come back.” And to this some “lady” responded in a high-pitched voice, “Ah, yes, I completely forgot that we’ll be seeing those sidelockers again.”
But the subject died out, because at that very moment, a German soldier dashed into our shelter! For a moment, panic set in, but it soon turned out he had simply come in looking for shelter and a hiding place from the Russian soldiers. He trembled and stammered with fear. Somebody who understood German translated what he said. He had been called to the front against his will and had never wanted this senseless and cruel war. He had known from the beginning that the Germans would lose. In a word, he was the personification of justice. He begged us to give him civilian clothing and to hide his uniform and gun, shaking like a leaf the whole time. But nobody wanted to hide a German soldier, his uniform, or his gun. In the end, he was simply forced out of the shelter. He walked out, and immediately we heard a single shot.
We returned to the apartment and to prayer. The streets were full of Russian soldiers, loud and clumsy-looking in their padded jackets. Meanwhile, Mrs. K. hadn’t shown up. Transportation for the civilian population was not yet fully operational. A pontoon bridge was built across the Vistula. Crowds streamed across in both directions.
One time I was walking with Mrs. Bereżyńska when suddenly, I heard someone calling, “Marysia, Marysia! Marysia Perlberger!” I stopped. It was my cousin. Mrs. Bereżyńska stopped a little further on, ostentatiously turning her back. Meanwhile, this cousin, Henek, asked where I was staying and with whom. Seeing that I didn’t want to answer, he gave me his address, adding that another cousin had survived and was living with him. He asked me to visit them. “You’ll come, won’t you?”—he wanted to make sure. “All right, I’ll come,” I said and walked on with Mrs. Bereżyńska. “What did he want from you?” she asked. I told her that he wanted me to visit him. “Very well, go, but I must warn you; Jews poison every child who has converted to the Catholic faith. They would rather see the child dead than converted. To such a child they give tea with poison in it.
For several days I hesitated. Should I go or not go? In the end, I thought I might find out something about my parents, and that shifted the balance. I decided to go. I rang the bell. Henek opened the door. “Oh, Marysia! How good that you’ve come, come in!” I didn’t want to go in right away, so I stood at the threshold. And he began asking me, “Marysia, where do you live? Who has been taking care of you this whole time? And with whom did your mother leave her jewelry? How about her furs? Well, come in, I’ll make you some tea.” When I heard this, I was gone. Henek, leaning over the handrail of the stairs, yelled after me, “Why are you running away? At least leave the address where you’re staying!” But I kept on running and didn’t even turn my head. “So that’s how it is,” I thought. “First they ask where my mama’s jewels are, and then they want to poison me with tea!” Mrs. Bereżyńska was very happy with this turn of events. She only said, “You see, I was right. You shouldn’t go there anymore. Pray and you’ll see that all will go well for you.”
One day Mrs. K. appeared. I thought she would give me some news about my parents or take me with her to Wieliczka. But she responded impatiently and brusquely, as usual, “Your parents have not yet returned, and I can’t take you to Wieliczka. The Germans could come back at any moment, so it’s better if nobody knows you’re alive. I can’t take care of you now or pay for you, so I’m going to leave you at a children’s shelter here in Kraków, and later we will see.”
Mrs. K. took me to a shelter for homeless children. I was led into a room. The noise and confusion that reigned were indescribable. Against the walls stood bare bunk beds, pieced together from rough boards. The place was full of children—on the floor, on the bunks—boys and girls of various ages. They were all horribly dirty and dressed in a strange manner—sleeves too long, shoes too big, sometimes even unmatched. Everyone was playing cards or with knives. There were no adults supervising them. This was a rabble of children from the lowest layer of society.
“Oh, look, there’s somebody new. Probably a Jew!” “I’m not a Jew,” I denied. “Then look for a place on this side.” Because on the other side stood the bunks of the Jewish children. They were indescribably thin and weak. They didn’t move at all from their place, and only their large, dark eyes gave evidence that they were living beings. But what did I care about Jewish children! A certain girl agreed to accept me on her bunk (each bunk was occupied by two and sometimes even three children). Bed linen was out of the question. They all slept in their clothes and covered themselves with a coat (if they had one).
It was a bad situation, but I didn’t even think about going back to the Jews. If my parents came back, they would find me through Mrs. K. Other Jews I regarded with disgust.
One evening, a family stopped by for the night. They were on their way from Warsaw to Łódź and, by a strange coincidence, happened to stop in Kraków. They were directed to our shelter for the night—they were to continue their journey the next day. They noticed me, asked me a few questions—and asked whether I would like to go with them. They seemed nice, so I agreed. In the office of the shelter they made no objection—my name was simply crossed off their roster. And thus I set out with my new guardians on the way to Łódź. Mr. and Mrs. Stoliński (that was their name) had a little daughter, perhaps two years old. They promised that I would become their older daughter, that they would send me to school and perhaps even adopt me later.
Outside, it was March weather—windy and sleeting. I felt I had a fever; my head was spinning, and my ears hurt. We waited a long time at the station. The child cried from hunger, and I felt a strange dullness, most likely caused by the fever. In the end, we managed to get a place in a freight car. The train crawled along and stopped every few moments. A day later, we reached Łódź. The Stolińskis lived there before the war, but their apartment had been taken over by Germans and they’d been resettled in Warsaw. Now they were returning to live again in their old apartment.
After a few days my ears stopped hurting, but I went deaf, absolutely and completely. Mrs. Stolińska didn’t believe me at first, thinking I was pretending, but she was finally convinced. In order to communicate with me, she began to write. But a doctor was out of the question. Mr. Stoliński returned to his old prewar job as a civil servant. Weeks passed. Then suddenly I regained my hearing but remained weak and tired. At night I slept curled up on two armchairs pushed together, which, with my every move, slid apart. To make things worse, Mr. Stoliński typed in the same room where I tried to fall asleep. My bones ached, and the clacking of the typewriter bothered me.
The promise of sending me to school was not fulfilled. I was told to take the child for walks and perform various household chores. Mrs. Stolińska constantly asked me whether perhaps I was a Jew. I stubbornly denied it. I decided to return to Warsaw. Mrs. Ch. has probably returned to Koło by now, I thought, she’ll surely be happy to see me! And if she’s not there, I’ll try to get a place at the cloister of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and become a resident there. That would solve all my problems. Not thinking long, I packed my little backpack and told Mrs. Stolińska about my plans. She expressed surprise that I wanted to leave them but gave me money for the trip. After many complications, I arrived in Warsaw. In front of me was a forest of ruins.
I returned to Koło. Mrs. Kamińska began questioning me whether I wanted to go back to the Jews. I was astonished and taken aback by the fact that she knew who I was, but I didn’t want to hear about returning to Jews. I wrote to Mrs. K., letting her know about my plans. She wrote back angrily, “What has gotten into your head? Upkeep at the Cloister of the Immaculate Conception costs one thousand złotys a month! You’re doing things independently without permission. If you had stayed in Kraków like the other children, you would be going to school by now.”
The 1945–46 school year had already started, and there was no room in the cloister. But, in the end, I got a place! It was not at the Immaculate Conception but at Saint Ursula’s, and so I achieved my goal! I thanked Mrs. Kamińska for her hospitality and immediately set out on my way. Then, all of sudden, among the ruins of Warsaw, I met Wanda! She managed to write down my new address at the cloister, and we parted (the local train I was taking was just about to leave).
I got to Piaski. All around were empty fields. From afar I could see a few houses. I asked about the Ursuline cloister, and someone pointed the way. It turned out to be a white building, rather nice looking from the outside, which was surrounded by a stone wall. I was led into the mother superior’s office. She was short and very round, and her plumpness gave her a semblance of gentleness. I turned over to her all my documents.
I was sent to the kitchen for lunch. I was hungry; I hadn’t had anything to eat since early morning. The dinner I was given reminded me of the food at the shelter in Kraków—the same kind of banged up tin plate and the same contents—a little watery soup with a few sparse cabbage leaves floating in it. A few girls came in from school. They were served the same dinner. They ate greedily; I could see they were starved. A nun took me to a room. It was tiny. The beds, made up with white sheets, were arranged tightly, one next to the other. Judging by their number, I thought there would be four of us staying there, but by the time evening came, I found out I was mistaken.
A bell rang. I thought it was time for supper, but it was a call for evening prayers in the chapel. It was dim, but unlike in a church, there was no smell of incense in the air. The prayer was long and monotonous, conducted in a low voice by one of the nuns. Finally, it ended, and we were taken to the refectory for supper. We were served barley soup for a change, also watery. I tried to cheer myself up thinking that perhaps the next day, on Sunday, the food would be better.
December came. Snow, early that year, covered the ground. I found no joy in it like the other children. The snow was now my enemy. Everything I had to wear was falling apart, and getting anything new was out of the question. On top of this, while walking along, snow stuck to my wooden clogs and after a few steps formed thick clods that had to be knocked off by force. Thus the walk to and from school lasted twice as long.
I was assigned to a room with the older girls. Every morning I observed the same scene with amazement. A nun woke us up, but I was the only one who got up obediently. These “elders” hid in a wardrobe to avoid going to Mass. Then they calmly went back to bed. When the nun reproached them, they answered impertinently and without fear. I was tempted to follow their example and get a full night’s sleep for once, but
I was afraid. “What if they think I’m a Jew?” I thought, “Then they would throw me out of here, and where would I go to school then?”
The Christmas holidays approached. In the school it was announced that the charity committee would invite children who had no homes to which they could go, to a modest Christmas Eve celebration. I signed up, despite the embarrassment. After all, I was hungry, and I had no home. The celebration took place after class. Packages of sweets were distributed to us. By the time I returned to the cloister, the contents of my package were gone. I walked slowly, not rushing. However, this time a surprise awaited me. I was called into the office, and—I saw Wanda! There was a man with her whom I did not know. It turned out to be her uncle. They came to take me for the holidays! Mother Superior gave her permission, and we were on our way.
We drove up to a villa. It was a home for children of fallen soldiers and officers. We found ourselves in a brightly lit hall. There were children all around. Pre-holiday commotion reigned. I was introduced to the director, who, in turn, introduced me to the children as a “guest who will spend the holidays with us.” Wanda and her uncle left, and I remained alone in the midst of strangers again. However, I was immediately looked after, and someone brought an additional set of angel wings so I could take part in the Christmas pageant.
A bell was sounded for the Christmas Eve supper. The food was tasty and plentiful. Nobody there looked hungry. Later, we all returned to the common room, where we sat around the Christmas tree and sang carols. Then the Christmas play began. The roles, which were sung, were amusing. Not lacking were a peasant and a Jew.
The peasant sang:
Jew, Jew, a Messiah is born,
So it behooves you, it behooves you
To welcome him!
And the Jew responded:
And where is he,
And where is he,
I would be glad to see him.
We’ll bow down,
We’ll bow down,
If it’s becoming!
And so they sang, one after the other, until the peasant started battering the Jew with a stick, and the Jew ran off the stage, hopping around comically and singing, “Oy vey, gevalt!” [Oh, how terrible!] So a comical figure of a Jew was always a highlight of those plays.
After some time, I found myself in a children’s home near Opole. There we lived in a thirteenth-century castle. For school we went into Opole. One day, during lunch, the director suddenly asked loudly, very loudly, “Marysia, what’s this about an aunt of yours called Schenker?” All eyes turned toward me. I was struck dumb. I shrugged my shoulders. I really didn’t remember such a name. However, the director went on, “They are summoning you to Kraków. I think you should go and clear up what it’s all about.” The next day I was on my way to Kraków.
It was a drizzly autumn day, and my spirits felt the same. In Kraków, I went to the specified address without delay (to have it over and done with quickly). I rang the bell and stepped over the threshold. The apartment was in a state of pre-departure chaos. There were suitcases everywhere—parts of clothing, shoes, some papers, letters, and photographs. An elderly woman and several other people were busy packing. I stood there without a word.
Then the elderly woman’s eyes fell on me. “Marysia!” she shouted and hugged me warmly. “Marysia, so you did come after all!” At first I didn’t react. She was an aunt I didn’t know at all, my grandfather’s sister, someone from the older generation. I first wanted to figure out whether this new aunt would suit me, but, after a moment, the ice was broken. Aunt said she had nothing against my being a Catholic, that I could continue to go to church.
Naturally, I immediately announced that I had come for only one day and that I wanted to get back to the children’s home as soon as possible. (I was already trying to figure out how I’d convince everyone that it had been a mistake when I returned.) What does the name Schenker have to do with me, Maria Nowakowska?!
All of a sudden another woman in the room broke in, “Well, all right, let her go back. She evidently doesn’t want to know about her family. In that case, the family wouldn’t want to know about her.” The word “family” had a magical power, and that’s what shifted the balance. I stayed. However, the aunt was supposed to leave to go abroad in a couple of days. For the time being, therefore, she decided to leave me here in Kraków until she could arrange for me to join her. I learned how she had found me. She had survived the war in Russia. Recently, she had returned to Poland and begun to search for surviving members of the family. She got my address from Mrs. K.
My aunt left. I was once again in a children’s home, this time it was a home for Jewish children. I looked at my new surroundings with distrust and even with a measure of disdain. The dark, curly hair and Semitic features of the children bothered me. Weeks went by, and I slowly grew accustomed to my new surroundings, but I never went to town with my new friends, who looked Jewish. From time to time I still went to church, but then, all of a sudden, I discovered it didn’t attract me as much anymore. I waited for news from my aunt, but it turned out I also had other relatives. An unexpected letter arrived from an uncle in Belgium, who was my mama’s brother. Suddenly, and equally unexpectedly, someone appeared who had been sent by him, and, before I realized what was going on, I was on my way to Cieszyn where I was taken across a bridge to the Czech side. There, my uncle was waiting for me. I was on the other side.
Czech side – Cieszyn is a divided town, half of it being in Poland, half in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia). It served as a passage for illegal immigration to Palestine.
Maria Perlberger-Schmuel has been living in Israel since 1947. She wrote down her wartime experiences shortly after leaving Poland in 1946. Her memoirs, entitled “W chowanego ze śmiercią” [Playing hide-and-seek with death], were published in Israel and reprinted in Poland (Więź No. 7-8, 1988). We are publishing it here, somewhat abbreviated, with the permission of Więź.—Katarzyna Meloch