Wanda Ziemska, born in 1934
In Fear Because of My Origins
I look into my childhood as into a very dark well. I recall things I had long ago erased from memory, because one cannot live with such baggage. I have decided, however, to note down what has remained and emerges from obscurity into my consciousness, because I owe it to the people who helped me stay alive. I don’t know their names, not only because I don’t remember them; I believe they didn’t want me to know them, so I couldn’t reveal them to someone I shouldn’t. Besides, who would introduce themselves to a small Jewish child?
My recollections are not continuous—from the dark recesses shines through sometimes a melody, a phrase, or an image. The only constant thing is a feeling of total loneliness. To these fragments of recollection are constantly being added more pieces of the still unassembled puzzle. I was born on May 16, 1934. We lived in Warsaw on Widok Street.
Father, Edward Posner, in a haberdashery and trimmings factory at 129 Marszałkowska Street, produced items needed by the theater. Mama, Zofia, née Goldberg, played the piano. I had no siblings. I remember my mama’s dresses, but I don’t remember her face. I hear her playing, but I can’t visualize her. Noemi, my cousin from Palestine, who visited us with her mother and two sisters before the war, managed to return home in time. The rest of the family—cousin Jurek; his mother, my Aunt Pola, who avidly collected porcelain; his father, my Uncle Herman; my grandmother; and my other uncles—we all moved together into the ghetto in Warsaw. We stayed at first on Orla Street.
When I think “ghetto”, I hear some strange, dull melody. I can’t repeat it, but it’s in me—monotonous, sad. In front of buildings are dead bodies covered with paper. We change apartments several times, but what I remember most clearly is that I am kept in some very strange places. From the rear wall of a wardrobe, a board is removed. I cross through the wardrobe to the other side where there is a narrow space. The board is then returned to its place. After some time I cross back through the wardrobe. I no longer have Grandma.
Bookshelves. Under the lowest shelf are heavy volumes and some mortars. A few of the books are removed, and I crawl into a dark space. I come back out—Mama, Aunt Pola, Jurek, and Uncle Herman are gone. Father comes back from the “other side”, from beyond the ghetto wall, and says that they have been decimated and that Uncle Herman was allowed to stay but joined Aunt Pola and Jurek on his own. For years, I was sure that “decimate” meant to line people up in rows and take every tenth one for the transport. (“Little Wanda, and where is your family? One, two, three . . . ten, ten, ten—my family is the ‘ten’.”) Someone told me later that that railroad wagon, or that transport, was filled with lime near Małogoszcz.
I must have had something to eat in the ghetto, but I only remember two meals. The first was probably from an earlier period, because Grandma was feeding me. A horse had fallen in the street. I ate horse blood, curdled in pieces, fried in a pan. It tasted like sand and looked like a black sponge. I was the only one eating; many people all around were looking at me—no one else was eating. Mama, hunched down near the wall, was cradling her elbows in her hands. I remember her hands but not her face. The other meal I remember—in an empty office. Father got me out of my hiding place behind some wardrobes, sat me down at a tall desk, and gave me a can of thick soup. While I was eating it, I found a small strand of meat. And then my father burst into tears. That was the only time I ever saw him cry. I remember this day probably only because of the concurrence of opposites—I had spent the whole day sitting behind a wardrobe, having to keep quiet. Now, Papa has come, I am able to talk, I am cheerful, I am eating something good—and tears are streaming down his face…
For a very long time, my memories of hiding in the ghetto did not fit in with the things I knew about the war. That you have to hide on the Aryan side was clear and obvious, but hiding in the ghetto, and each time in a different place, made no sense whatsoever.
I no longer had any family or friends left. Besides Papa, I saw only the brush factory workers. They sat in rows, pulling folded wires through holes in small wooden boards. They inserted precut thin bronze-colored bristles into the wire loops and pulled them in tufts into the board. They sang, “Miss Wanda, the boss’s daughter—oy! What a brat, big trouble—oy!”
…“made no sense whatsoever” – in order not to be deported, a person had to have a Kennkarte, an identity card showing that he/she was employed and “useful”. A child who had no Kennkarte was subject to deportation and thus had to be hidden.
Now comes the time of forgetting. I get a birth certificate. All the first names are okay, but I must forget the [original] last names and dates. I follow this to the letter, as if erasing something written on a blackboard. One evening Father took me to an unfamiliar apartment. Other people were assembling there, and when night came, we went in a small group out onto the empty street. Above the entrance to the sewer, I said goodbye to Father, who stayed behind. The journey through the sewers was quite complicated. At times it looked like a dirty river, and then men in tall rubber boots put us on their backs and carried us to dry places. They carried not only me, a child, on their backs but also adults. To this day I can remember how hard it was for me to climb out of the sewer
—I couldn’t reach from one rung to the next.
We were taken to a narrow waiting room and told to wait in absolute silence until dawn. Some lady came for me and took me with her. The sun was shining, women were selling Easter palms and spring flowers. I don’t remember during my two and a half years in the ghetto having seen even one small flower. But still, there must have been sun. Why was there no sun in the ghetto? There was very little light, sometimes none at all; I don’t remember even one sunny day, while here, on the Aryan side, the sun was shining all the time.
My guardian was a set designer at one of Warsaw’s theaters before the war and had worked together with my father. His wife had a dressmaking shop and employed several assistants. She did not have children; my guardian, for the Easter Holiday, brought his small son over. They took away all my things and dyed my hair blond, we got “real” święcone to amuse us, and I was told, “Never go near the window, learn the prayers, and everything will be all right.” It wasn’t. One day, downstairs, in the courtyard, a woman was heard shouting, “They won’t give me back my child, and they’re hiding a Jewish girl!”
Święcone – author refers to small figurines sometimes included with delicacies blessed by the priest on Holy Saturday before Easter.
From that time on, I began to be moved around—a few days here and there with young women who were learning to sew, also in various places around Warsaw, in Pelcowizna, with some trusted clients, one of whom had a particular impact on me, and I have remembered her all my life. She took me to the attic and showed me, through a little window, an enormous glow, saying, “Look, your father is burning there.” After a few days she showed me a scrap from a postcard and, without handing it to me, said that it was a message from my papa from Treblinka, saying he was a tailor there and doing well. I did not know what the truth was, whether my papa was burning in a glow spread over the whole sky or whether there were tailors in Treblinka who were faring well…
Pelcowizna is an area of Warsaw on the eastern side of the Vistula.
We were walking along the street. The woman looked at my birth certificate and decided it was too new. She crumpled it up. The certificate was still new, just crumpled up. She scrunched it up into a ball and dropped it through the grill into the sewer—my ticket for survival and the last thing I had from my father. This whole period of being passed from hand to hand lasted from Easter until late autumn of 1943. I didn’t know names or addresses. I don’t know whom to thank for my life.
There is a book by Tim O’Brien entitled The Things They Carried. A group of people are going through the horrors of war. They all carry something that helps them survive, to return to the normal world. Anything—a letter, a photograph, some trifle. I was alone, I was not carrying anything of my own, and I had no family name that I could associate with anything. The loneliness of a child who can’t be herself and already has the awareness that people are afraid even of her looks; their negative reaction, that is something that stays with you for life.
The Things They Carried (New York: Broadway Books, April 1999) is a book about Vietnam.
I memorized a new life story: I escaped with my mother from Nowogródek, we stopped in a village called Brzózki, and there Mama fell ill and died. The woman with whom we were staying brought me to Warsaw, sat me down on a bench in the waiting room at the Warsaw main railroad station, told me she was going to buy a roll and hasn’t returned yet. I was not supposed to remember anything else.
It must have been November 1943, it was evening, and it was sleeting. I approached a policeman standing in the square in front of the station and told him my whole story. For the next few days the railroad station became my home—the police station there. I slept there on a stretcher on the floor, I ate out of a mess kit, and during the day, I sat on a bench by a wall. The police turned me over to the RGO [Central Welfare Council]. An empty white hall, two attendants in white smocks on duty, lights on day and night.
RGO is the acronym for Rada Główna Opiekuńcza.
I was taken back to the police station, then back to the RGO, then back again. Finally, the policeman, the same one I approached in the train station, took me to the Gestapo headquarters on Szucha Avenue. A long corridor, the right-hand wall formed by metal bars. Beyond it, the cells, two rows of benches similar to kneeling benches, people sitting with their backs to the entrance. There were no windows, lights were on all day. That was the “streetcar”. The man in front of me had a bloody head. He whispered, “Ask for coffee.”
I was free to walk around the cell, approach the bars, while nobody else was even permitted to turn his head around. Walking up and down the corridor were armed Germans. At my request, a heavyset woman came with an aluminum pot and gave me a mug of coffee through the bars. I passed it around between the benches in my cell; the woman smiled and refilled the mug many times without a word. For the next few days I was interrogated upstairs in room 305. The translator was a roundish man in gold-framed glasses and a light-colored suit; the others were Germans in uniform. The questions tumbled out very quickly, often the same ones many times. A big map covered the wall. An officer searched for Brzózki and found about seventeen villages with that name. Which Brzózki is it? I tried very hard, but I didn’t know.
From this interrogation I have remembered: Translator: “Why did you run away from Nowogródek?” Me: “From the army.” The translator repeated, after the interrogator, who was in a gray uniform, “Were the soldiers in uniforms like mine?” I was not prepared to answer this question. I did not know in what uniforms were the soldiers in Nowogródek in November 1943. I had to think. If they wore the same kind, he would not have asked. “No, different ones,” I replied. “Did they talk like me?” “No, differently.” There were enough questions for several days, but these are the ones I remember.
From the “streetcar” we were taken to a transport. People were called out from the cells behind the bars and lined up facing the wall. The Germans shouted horribly. I knew they were going to Palmiry, but I didn’t know what that meant. Upstairs, I was ordered to kneel down by the desk and say my prayers loudly. I recited “Our Father”, “Hail Mary”, “I Believe in God”. They interrupted me at “Under Thy Protection”. I was lucky they didn’t tell me to sing—Christmas carols, for instance! A man in a navy blue uniform, I don’t know whether he was a railroad worker or an official, swore that he was a neighbor of my parents in Nowogródek, that he knew them and knew that they had a daughter…
Palmiry is a village in the Kampinos National Park northwest of Warsaw, where mass murders of Poles and Jews took place.I returned to the “streetcar”, but then I was led into an office or a large guardroom. On one side sat a heavily made-up girl chattering away, and on the other, by the door, stood a woman with a child in her arms. A German, from behind a desk, asked me which one of them I wanted to go with. He gestured with his hands so that I would understand what he was asking me about. Everyone, except for the woman with the child, was laughing loudly. I cautiously took a step toward the woman who was not laughing. We left.
The woman was shaking all over, burst out crying, and couldn’t calm down. From the subsequent oft-repeated accounts given to neighbors and acquaintances, I understood what had happened. “My” policeman found out that the Gestapo would release me provided somebody registered me. He dropped in on his friends who worked for Schiele (the firm Haberbush and Schiele) and asked whether anyone would be willing to register a little girl for a few days. Some man said that he could do it, but before he managed to return home to alert his wife, the Gestapo had already been at his house and taken his wife with them. She brought with her only the younger daughter, thinking it would be safer that way. When she understood that nothing had happened, that it was all about picking up a girl, she cried with joy, having previously been in shock. I slept in the kitchen on a reclining beach chair. Then there was Christmas, with a tree, and I got a pink sweater.
At the beginning of the new year, 1944, I sat in the corridor of the emergency shelter on Sienna Street. I held a shoe box containing sandwiches and holiday cake on my lap. I was led into a room full of children. They sat on tables, benches, on the floor, and several older ones watched the door. The teacher was reading aloud Pan Tadeusz. I stayed almost until the end of July, mostly in isolation. I was told I had typhus. Father Stefański was taking care of me.
Pan Tadeusz [Mr. Tadeusz] is a very famous Polish epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz.
A woman psychologist conducted psychological tests on me. At the end of July, a nun in lay clothing took me and several other girls away. We entered an overcrowded train through the window. This was supposedly the last train departing from the Warsaw East Station, perhaps due to the approaching Soviet army from the east, or maybe due to the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. We arrived at St. Joseph’s Institution in Otwock. I entered the recreation room upstairs. At long tables sat about fifteen girls who, in the margins and between the lines of old filled-up notebooks, were writing as punishment, “I am a thief because I stole tomatoes.” Five hundred times. This was my home for the next five years.
My guardians clearly did not want me to remember my origins, and they succeeded in that. I do not think my further fate differed much from that of any other orphaned child. I did not associate the unpleasantness or adversity I encountered with my origins, but rather with being an orphan, with my loneliness, and my own faults. As a rule, some people come from the country, others from cities, but I came from nowhere. I did not know any of my family’s surnames, so I wrote to the Socio-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland, asking whether anyone had inquired about me. I was told I should turn to the Polish Red Cross, but from them also came a negative reply. I changed schools, jobs, places of residence; for a long time, I could not find my place in life.
Socio-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland – TSKŻ, Towarzystwo Społeczno-Kulturalne Żydów w Polsce.
Eventually, I arrived at a stopping point. I met my husband and took up a normal, stable life and work. The martyrology of Jews became the subject of a series of paintings by my husband, which have been exhibited both in Poland and abroad. They have received positive reviews, and most of them have been sold.
In March 1968 something started happening in Poland, but I didn’t feel it related to me in any way. At the beginning of April, a coworker came to my office, where the phone had not rung for several days, and whispered, “You’re going to have problems.” “For what?” “For Zionism.” “And what is Zionism?” “Well, I don’t really know, but it has something to do with your origins.” Then there was a general meeting, accusations from the podium; I see in the hall my coworkers crying. I have nightmares about this meeting to this day. Reading aloud an anonymous letter, which the authorities received, “She hates Poland. She says that she will shoot at workers.”
“This is obviously a mistake.”
“They will apologize in a few days. This can’t be about me, it’s out of the question.”
I take my accumulated vacation, and we go to my husband’s parents. My father-in-law takes me aside for a “private” conversation. He has friends who are foresters and can place me “for safekeeping” in some well-hidden place until everything clears up. My husband makes the final decision—he will not let me go into hiding anywhere, and we will not leave the country of our own free will. We expect that he will now face a lot of unpleasantness, but he does not. He continues to teach art in a lyceum, only that previously commissioned paintings of the martyrological series are returned to him, and he is not invited to participate in an exhibition. My husband’s friends find me a job, but the Municipal Committee of the PZPR does not consent to my being hired. When I step out into the street, it seems to me as if someone had pinned a label on my back, and every few minutes I check that nothing is hanging there. When I hear steps on the stairs when I am alone at home, I hide behind the curtain or the sofa.
The PZPR, Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza [Polish United Workers’ Party] was a Communist party formed in December 1948 in Warsaw. It performed administrative functions on behalf of the state and had full control of many work assignments.
I begin suffering from joint problems and am granted a third- degree disability pension, having been diagnosed with rheumatic joint inflammation. The director who signed my dismissal from work brings to my house a huge bouquet of roses. He is very sorry, he says, and ashamed that it had fallen to him to do it. My husband buys me a typewriter. I accept work to be done at home from the Translation Cooperative as long as my fingers can still type. My husband teaches me the Bible on the basis of reproductions of paintings by old masters. I also read books by Singer and learn from them about the customs and what it means to be a Jew. As if I didn’t know… It is exactly thirty years and five months since I learned that I am not a full-fledged citizen of my homeland. My illness has progressed very far; I can move only with the greatest difficulty, my eyesight is weak, and I rarely go out of the house.
Singer – Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer (1901–1991) was a Polish-born American author whose works about Jewish life in the shtetl have been translated into Polish and are very popular in Poland.When Solidarity first started, I was working just part-time. The leader of our union came to me and invited me to join this great, wonderful movement. I replied that I would very gladly do so, but I feared that my very presence would only do them harm. He understood but contradicted me, saying that it was certainly not so, that I did not realize how noble Solidarity was and how far above any divisions, and that this was its very idea.
Shortly after that, I had to quit and stopped working professionally. Today, it has become evident that my fears were justified. At this very moment, as I am writing this, crosses are being assembled along the fence of the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, in Auschwitz—against Jews. Someone is playing his own game, for reasons I cannot understand, drawing into it the dead and the living. Those who should be silent are screaming, and those who should be screaming are silent. I am beginning to be afraid. For the third time in my life, I am in fear because of my origins.
Solidarity [Solidarność], headed by Lech Wałęsa, began in 1980 as a democratic workers’ movement. It was later outlawed but returned in 1989 to be a part of the government, eventually leading to the downfall of Communism.