Rachela Malinger, born in 1927
The Beginning of Hell
It was the night before the Germans were expected to march into Łódź. The city had previously been shelled with artillery fire and bombarded. The shelling had gone on without interruption, so for a long time we couldn’t leave the cellar, which had been quickly converted into a shelter. When things finally quieted down, we moved from the fifth floor, where we lived, and where the danger seemed greater, to our neighbors’ on the ground floor. Fully dressed, holding in our hands bundles that contained only the most essential items (needed in case our own apartment was destroyed by a bomb or a shell), we lay on the floor, waiting for further events to unfold.
That night, knowing that the German army was already just outside the city, was the worst. The Germans were to enter Łódź the next day. What should we do, escape from the city or stay?
We had one night left to make the decision. It had to be made right away; the next day would already be too late. Those who decided to escape began to gather in the courtyard, loaded down with their household “treasures”. “We’ll go toward Warsaw. It’s the capital, after all. They won’t let the Germans in there,” some people said, trying to convince others, but mainly themselves, that they had made the right choice. “Fools, what are you doing?” said the ones who decided to stay. “Can there be an effective defense against the Germans, with their technology and armaments?” Both sides were haunted by doubts, but there was no time for deliberation. After the farewells, tears, and despair, those who decided to escape moved out toward the gate in a long line.
Mama decided to stay. She was afraid that Papa might come back and not find us. Our courtyard on the Eleventh of November Street reminded one of a large square-shaped well, surrounded by four six-story apartment buildings. An iron gate led out to the busy street, one of the four radiating out from Kościuszko Square. There were two grocery stores, one on each side of the gate. On the day the Germans entered the city, the shutters of the stores were closed, and the people who decided to stay looked at the Germans through the bars of the closed gate, trying to figure out what those people in bluish-gray uniforms were bringing them.
Eleventh of November Street – “11-go Listopada” is a street named in honor of Polish Independence Day, first proclaimed at the end of World War I on November 11, 1918.
The Germans, seated in even rows on trucks, or riding on motorcycles, drove by our gate in the direction of Kościuszko Square, throwing fleeting glances at us. Some, having noticed the lovely face of my eighteen-year-old sister, smiled at her with unmistakable desire. These smiles gave some of the onlookers a wrong impression. “Well, they’re people like anyone else,” they said, and pitied those who had gone east into the unknown. “Look, they’re smiling. They’re not all beasts, after all,” they repeated, wanting to convince others of that which they themselves wanted to believe. But we were soon convinced that human beings are always the victims of force and cruelty.
Those who went east on that horrible night, hoping for rescue, made a costly mistake. The long column of people, plodding along toward Warsaw with their “treasures”, their children, and the elderly, were cruelly machine-gunned by Nazi warplanes. Not many were left alive. Having lost their relatives and loved ones, they returned to their deserted apartments in Łódź. We then learned from them about these dreadful events.
Soon we, too, the ones who had stayed in the city, found out that the soldiers’ smiles did not mean anything good for us. Those smiles were not meant for us. Those were the smiles of victors, who took pride in having power over millions of defenseless people. The next day, as usual, I went to school. But changes were taking place there already. Classes in some subjects were forbidden, and after a week, the school was closed entirely. Why bother to educate children doomed for annihilation?
Soon the Germans issued an order that all Jews, including infants in baby carriages, were to wear a yellow Star of David on the left arm. Mama carefully sewed this emblem on our clothes. We children, not yet understanding the significance of this symbol, squabbled over whose star was prettier.
The streets became dangerous. One time I saw an old woman marked with a star sitting on the sidewalk selling some trifles, and a soldier kicked her in the face. Another time I witnessed a scene in the courtyard of the command post. Soldiers were tormenting a group of bearded old men who were standing in line; they had come in reponse to an order to surrender all bicycles and radio sets. They made them squat, jump, and crawl on the cobblestones. And on another occasion, there was the sound of a windowpane being broken in a store where not so long before Papa had taken me to buy sandals. The storekeeper had tried them on me while I sat on a high chair—pair after pair, until he found precisely those white ones that I had always dreamed about. And now, through the broken window, they were plundering and destroying the store, while a crowd of Aryans was laughing and egging them on against the Jews.
Day by day our living space was shrinking more and more. We were forbidden to walk on the main streets, but we still had to get food, and since we lived in the center of the city, we had to move about through courtyards and small alleys. Roundups were a great danger. They would grab everybody who happened to be on the street at that moment, load them on a truck, and take them in an unknown direction. People would come back from such round-ups badly roughed up or would disappear altogether.
Once, while standing behind our gate and watching such a round- up near our house, I was horrified to see my sister among those captured. My sister, whose beautiful face made even the passers-by take notice, used to take great pains to mask her good looks. She disheveled her black hair, smudged her cheeks with soot, and dressed in old, worn-out dresses. This helped a little. But who knows how this round-up might end for her? I ran home to report what I had seen. Mama immediately ran out into the street, and paying no heed to the danger of being caught herself, grabbed a soldier by the sleeve and began saying something quickly to him in German. The Fascist evidently got confused by the sight of a woman with a yellow star speaking in his native language. In a second, Mama pulled my sister out of the crowd. “Run away,” she whispered to her. The gate was right there, and before the soldier knew it, both of them had disappeared. Thus, knowing the enemy’s language turned out to be a salvation.
Life in occupied Łódź was becoming increasingly difficult. The general poverty brought people together. Our neighbors, who had at one time been divided—into the rich in their comfortable apartments on the lower floors, the middle-class on the fourth or fifth floors, and the poor in the basements and attics—became equals after having been marked with the Star of David. The results of each round-up—the stories of the lucky ones who returned home, the fate of the ones who didn’t—all this concerned everybody in our building. What we heard often surprised us. Some people came back from these round-ups roughed up, with their beards cut off or simply ripped out, and with other signs of cruelty and humiliation, while others returned with small bags of flour or groats as payment for their work. The impression that was created was that the Germans had not yet received definitive instructions from “above” how to treat people in the occupied areas.
Thus, while general rules in keeping with Fascist ideology were followed, what actually took place depended on the “amateurish creativity” of the occupiers. Poland was the site then where they were testing how to carry out their theories in practice.
One evening, we heard loud knocking at our door. We were terrified—it was past curfew, so it couldn’t have been any of our acquaintances. The knocking at the door was persistent and ever louder. Mama pushed my brother and sister out on the back stairs, and taking me with her to the foyer, opened the door. A German soldier rushed in, showering us with curses, and calling us verfluchte Juden [cursed Jews]. “Where’s your husband?” he asked. “He’s not here; he was killed at the front,” she answered. “And where’s your son?” The soldier must have had information about our family from someone. “He went to Warsaw, to relatives,” she lied. The uninvited guest began to loot the apartment, looked in the kitchen, and kicked Kajtuś, my favorite little cat.
Mama understood from his behavior that this was not a planned assault but rather an amateurish act of an occupier who chanced upon us, looking for something to eat. “Maybe you could use some money?” she asked gently, to make the question sound polite. But there was no need for courtesy. “Give it to me, give me the money,” the robber in the Wehrmacht uniform readily agreed.
That time we ransomed ourselves with a modest sum, because it had only been a small private venture of one Fascist. But the occupier’s policies were taking on a more incomprehensible and ever more terrifying form. Increasingly, our vocabulary began to include a word uttered with horror—ghetto.