Wilhelm Zienowicz, born in 1938
A nun became my mother
I, Wilhelm Zienowicz, was born in Wilno as Wilinke Fink, son of Jakub and Riwka, née Menkin. My father managed to escape together with me from the ghetto in our native town of Butrymańce in Lithuania on the night between the seventh and eighth of August, 1941, several hours before the liquidation action began there. We were both saved, along with the four-person family of Dr. Abel Gabaj, by Miss Janina Zienowicz from Wilno, temporarily staying in that area. (Currently, after marriage, her name is Zagał, and she lives in Warsaw.)
At the beginning, we were all concealed in a hiding place in the great Rudnicki Forest. After three days, Zofia Kukolewska took three children—five-year-old Renana (since then called Danusia), ten-month-old Beniamin (diminutive, Mimuś), and me to Wilno to the home of the Zienowicz family. From then on, through the entire Nazi occupation, we were looked after by Miss Helena Zienowicz (1906–85), a nun from the Order of the Visitation of the Most Holy Virgin Mary (commonly called Visitation Sisters) in Wilno on Ross Street. Mimuś and his little sister were retrieved after the war by their father, Dr. Gabaj, who, together with the children, left Wilno later in 1959 for Israel, via Warsaw.
Throughout the entire eighteen years, right up until my “repatriation to Poland,” Miss Helena Zienowicz looked after me like a mother. But these were not easy years, by any means… In addition, when we arrived at her house, we did not know Polish at all, and we were supposed to pass as her nephews and nieces, or, in some situations, as her own children.
I was then a talkative and sociable four-year-old, exclusively using a Yiddish-Lithuanian vocabulary. “Mama” did not know these two lan- guages at all, and Renana and I did not understand Polish. I had the ten- dency to spontaneously greet all visitors and demonstrate to them my newly acquired Polish sentences, pronounced with a Yiddish accent.
I had particular difficulty in learning the voiced Polish “r.” Because since childhood, I have had very weak eyesight, I could not see the position of the lips and the tongue of the person talking to me. Mama, despairing of my pronunciation which threatened all those around with mortal danger, placed a little spoon in my mouth, directing my tongue in the right direction. How happy I was when I succeeded in pronouncing properly! Then, she praised me very much and taught us Polish songs and verses, which, by then, I was more adept at learning.
In this urgent problem of our adaptation to our surroundings, Mama was also supported by other favorably disposed persons who were in on the secret, in particular, by her sister, Janina, who was the one who had, in fact, placed us with Mama and who was the chief organizer of the effort to help us, our parents, and other Jews as well.
Frequent visitors to our house were Jerzy Orda, Doctor of Philosophy, and Sister Teresa Bzowska, a Visitation Sister), an excellent pedagogue who used to tell us about poor blacks in Africa and was very good to the three of us. Zofia Wieloch, the mother of several-months-old Krysia, often stayed with us. Once, she arrived sobbing that her husband, a prominent activist in the Home Army, had been taken to prison and that he was being tormented with interrogation because he would not talk. (While visiting in their house with my caretakers, I had once damaged his stove, rocking on a rocking chair.)
Then, there was the preparing and delivering of packages. Not being able to leave me anywhere, they took me, in turn, to the prison and to the food stores (with ration cards). Then, Marynka, a sister to Krysia, was born. Aunt Zosia Wieloch continuously cried that they beat her husband and that she had nothing with which to make up a package to take to the prison for him. Mama managed to obtain bluish horse meat somewhere and cut or chopped it with a little hatchet, and we took turns grinding it through a little machine, I don’t know how many times, into cutlets. Some of it went for the prison package and some for us (mainly for the children).
Then Stach Wieloch fell ill in prison with typhus and was treated in a hospital for infectious diseases. When he recovered a little, an escape was organized for him which was not successful. Grandfather Teofil Zienowicz stayed with us as caretaker while Mama was gone all night. In the morning, she came back crying. Many years later, she told me that she had sat all night huddled up in the woods near the infectious disease hospital because Stach Wieloch was supposed to make his way there. Her assignment was to disguise him and guide him to the next stage of the escape. He didn’t arrive! He was taken to the prison in Łukiszki and then transported to Ponary, where Jews and Poles were shot to death. He didn’t give anyone away!!!
Ponary – forest near Wilno where many people were taken to be killed.
Two priests played a very important role in saving the three of us children. One, from “Catholic Action,” issued false birth certificates to Jewish children, not asking details and not requiring any religious ceremonies. I never met this priest Świerkowski. He was arrested and killed. He did not inform on anyone!!! To this day, I am using the personal identity papers which he drew up.
The other was Father Władysław Kisiel, the uncle of our guardians, whom I remember very well. He used to visit us, joke around, sing and play with us in a circle, and jump up, encouraging us to imitate him in play. I remember once how he was pressing money onto Mama, and Mama was protesting that Uncle himself, after all, had little. But he said, “This is for milk for the children.” And then a milkmaid came in the morning with big milk cans and measured off a liter of milk, and Mama whitened noodle soup for the three of us, but she said that she herself would not drink milk because there would not be enough for Mimuś (the youngest).
And every few days, Grandfather would get a small bottle of goat’s milk from a relative, Mrs. Chesiak, for himself and give the rest of it to Mimuś. Afterwards, Mimuś would jump on the bed, and Grandfather Teofil would play music for him on a comb. On New Year’s Day, when Kisiel visited us, it turned out that under the Christmas tree, St. Nicholas had left gifts for the children. Later, the Bolsheviks sent him to Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan, where he perished.
In particularly dangerous moments, Mama protected us as well as she could. I once jumped up to greet a “stranger,” saying good morn- ing to him with a very bad accent. There were “difficulties.” At the beginning, when I still knew how to speak Yiddish but spoke Polish only badly, Jewish women used to come to Mama’s at Ostrobramska Street to warm up by the kitchen stove. We, the children, were not supposed to take part in the conversation of adults.
Suddenly, somebody knocked. The Jewish woman hid behind the stove, and Mama quickly went out, closing the door behind her. She did not return for a long time. The woman stepped out from behind the stove and began to converse with me in Yiddish. I immediately acquired confidence in her, perhaps at the sound of this language which today I no longer remember at all. I began answering her freely and confiding in her, declaring that she could become my dear mama, because my real one had died treating people in Butrymańce for typhus and that our house was disinfected after her. The woman explained something to me about safety, but she questioned me about various things.
Mama got very frightened and began to explain to me complicated matters, that Yiddish is spoken only in the ghetto, that my father, Jakub, instructed me that I should be a Pole, that Germans specifically send such people who know Yiddish to track down Jews in hiding, and that I should talk only to Mama, about whatever I wished, but not to anyone else.
When I already had a good accent, Mama would send me out, as I was blonde, on various small matters (e.g., to see whether there was bread to be gotten with ration cards, or whether the line at the store was very long, or to hold a place in line and say that Mama would come right away).
…“I was blonde” – since he had blond hair, he could pass as a Pole.
Once, while returning to our house on Ostrobramska Street, I involuntarily evoked the pity of some woman by shifting from foot to foot because I had a “small need.” She led me to the nearest building entryway, rendering the service of a nanny. She was admonished by a passerby for polluting. She began to defend herself that I was, after all, not her child. Around me, while the puddle was growing larger, an argument among several people was unleashed. Somebody whispered, “Jew.” Everybody fell silent, and I went home several entryways further.
I told Mama, who became terribly worried and appealed to my boyish pride, reproaching me that I could have allowed such “services” to be provided by a stranger. Only years later did I understand that a ritual mark exists, because at that time I concluded that it was the puddle that had unmasked my national identity.
Mimuś had terrible diarrhea. Mama prepared cottage cheese, recommended for him by Dr. Bujak. In the milk kitchen on Wielka Street, they were selling, with coupons, the allocation of skim milk. One had to stand there in long lines and wait until they began to give it out from a little window. Mama left me in line and did not return. The distribution ended. Customers dispersed. I burst out crying.
The staff consisted of Lithuanian women. They started consoling me and questioning me about “mamita.” They placed a full mug of milk under my nose. Out of fright that Mama had not come, I did not drink it, and I did not talk. I just wailed. I wanted the milk so much, but was I allowed to take it from strangers? Suddenly, I heard above me the word, “Kike.” Immediately, I found myself alone. At last, Mama came. I did not say anthing about that “Kike.” And about the cup of milk, she said, “It is a shame that you did not drink it, because these women have real milk, and to us, it is given out mixed with buttermilk.”
When tenants of the apartment building, drying out their laundry in the attic, found Jewish papers stuck behind a beam, danger began to hang over the apartment at Ostrobramska Street. Unbeknownst to Mama, Dr. Gabaj had hidden them when he escaped from the Wilno Ghetto because the ground started burning under his feet. Our protectors had organized a hiding place for him with Zofia and Jan Kukolewski in Angleniki (about forty kilometers from Wilno, six kilometers from the train station Rudziszki).
The entrance to the attic was located near us, and Mama, as well as the caretaker of the building, had keys. On the stairs leading up to the attic stood chamber pots used by the children and the adult Jews who were in hiding there for periods of time. At dusk or at dawn, Mama or Aunt Nina (Zagał) carried the contents out in a pail to the public toilet in the courtyard, one wing of which was taken over by the German Army. (There was no toilet inside the house, only cold water in the kitchen in a sink used for cooking purposes and for washing oneself.)
Throughout the entire occupation, the major part of which I spent on Ostrobramska Street, I was never once in the public toilet. Mama had strictly forbidden me; she thought I could drown there because I did not see well. Renana, being a brunette, also never went there, and Mimuś was too small.
All the tenants of the apartment building had a right to use this attic, and when it rained, they dried their laundry there. The caretaker of the building, and not Mama, was told about those Jewish papers. She was told only later by Dr. Gabaj. Rumor spread among the neighbors that Hela and Janka Zienowicz were hiding Jews.
I remember the raised voices of neighbor women from the same corridor, Mrs. Noworyt and Mrs. Rościszewska and others, yelling at Mama that she was endangering everybody. In the kitchen, the wife of the caretaker cried in front of Mama, “Madam, I also have children, have mercy, madam, they will kill my husband or everyone for not reporting them!”
But Mama, in response to this, said that we are the children of her very own brother, Ignacy from Belarus, that she alone is responsible for us, that madam caretaker also has a key to the attic, and that she herself can go there any time, that Mama would move the chamber pots aside, and please, look over the attic, that, after all, my uncle, the priest, visits here, and the Visitation Sisters come, and you talk about Jews. The children are pious, say their prayers mornings and evenings, but that her sister-in-law, Lola (Alexan- dra Zienowicz, wife of Ignacy), is not able to teach them the prayers properly and asked that I teach them catechism in Wilno. They are already enrolled for catechism in the parish of Ostra Brama, Danusia (Renana) at Father Jagodziński’s, and Wili at Father Leosz’s (later killed by the Nazis).
From then on, Mama always reminded us that after washing oneself, one should put on a little medallion, and she attended to our prayers twice a day. The somewhat-older-than-ourselves siblings, Halina and Staszek Retek, came for private lessons (“rabbits” leaving surprise treats of food for us at the door). Mama recounted beautifully to us all about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, about Moses and God, who, at Mount Sinai, gave the ten commandments, and about Jesus, who suffered terribly, and dead, rose from his grave and is able to do anything he wishes and will come to judge the world, who loves everybody, but particularly children.
Nonetheless, the threat remained. Mama declared to Danusia and me that we ought to pray and prepare for death because we could be taken to Ponary, that she would go with us and die with us, that we should not be afraid of anything. This assurance of hers gave me a feeling of security. With Mama at my side, I had no feeling of fear. She was frightened for me.
Once, she told us that she had spoken with our fathers, who told her that she should baptize us, and she asked whether we ourselves wished it. We assented. She dressed us in white, in our Sunday best, and washed the floor in the kitchen. I remember how she poured water from a little cup on me, reciting the baptismal formula, and got the freshly washed floor wet. And I came to love Jesus, who commanded that everyone be loved, and particularly children.
This exceptionally nice holiday mood of that intimately conducted ceremony was suddenly interrupted by pounding on the door and loud shouting. Some people came in and ceased yelling, but spoke rudely to Mama. Mama was very worried after they left and did not wipe up the floor, only picked up Mimuś’s diapers, crying. I was still dressed in white but already beginning to feel sad.
I used to go with Mama, or alone, to Ostra Brama and would hear the talk of neighborhood women that we were well-behaved and pious children. Only the children in the courtyard, sometimes passing by me, would let me know in a low voice that they knew who I really was, “Jud!” However, when the Reteks ran outdoors for a break between lessons, sometimes Danusia and I would also run out, and then the children in the yard played with us without causing us any unpleasantness. Among those children, there was one Lithuanian girl with a young wolfhound, Troj, and the rest were Polish children.
Ostra Brama means literally, a pointed gate; in actuality, it is an archway over the street connecting two buildings. Built into the archway is a religious shrine housing a highly revered painting of the Madonna.
Normally, Mama let us out outdoors as little as possible. She herself had responsibilities without measure. On her shoulders fell the burden of shopping, cooking on a wooden stove, doing laundry for us in a washtub, rinsing it under a cold courtyard hydrant (the kitchen faucet had a weak inflow, cold water only, of course), which was likewise being used by the German military vehicles that were constantly in our courtyard at Ostrobramska Street.
Mama also had the duty of forever darning and patching little children’s worn-out clothing, acquired someplace with difficulty, drying out the laundry in that attic where I myself had to hide sometimes from people who couldn’t be trusted. Then Mama would say to me, “Go and see whether the laundry has dried, and if it is wet, then wait a little while.” And I would wait in the attic until Mama would call me.
Once, in a bad moment, while hurrying, I bumped into a full chamber pot. Poor Mama then had a scene with the neighbors about such a mess, the job of cleaning up with cold water, and the fear that it would come to light whom she was hiding, all at the same time.
She ironed by herself. If there was cabbage, she pickled it in a barrel for the winter, she prepared jam out of beets and carrots, and she marinated little fish the length of a nail which we generally ate with the head, because it was a shame to throw it out. Potatoes were cooked in their skins because it was more economical, and it was a pity to waste the vitamins, except that potatoes were difficult to get. More often, Mama cut up and cooked a turnip, and if there was no fuel or time to cook, it was eaten raw.
When dear Aunt Zosia came, alone or with her husband, Jan, (our fathers were hidden with them), then they brought with them a “present” (a potato or buckwheat babka, sour cream, and fried fish that Jan had caught in a small river). These had an unforgettable taste.
Looking after the health of our threesome demanded special dedication from Mama. Throughout the entire occupation and even afterward, I very often wet myself, both in the daytime and at night. As I remember, on Ostrobramska Street, we usually slept together in one bed, Mama, Renana, and I. It was therefore tight, and in the morning, in addition, on my account, it was wet, so that mattresses and pallets became worn out prematurely. It was impossible to keep up with the wash and tidying up. I also had diseases of the gastrointestinal tract.
One time, Aunt Nina took me for a visit to Mrs. Maria Rzewuska (who greatly assisted various Jews who were being pursued). Aunt left me with her the whole day, and she treated me to delicious sandwiches and even more delicious tomatoes. When I was well fed, then I admitted that I was on a diet of gruel and was already having stomach pains.
When we returned home, Mama had to suddenly do a big wash and give me a bath. She had to light a fire in the kitchen stove at night and heat up lots of water for me, and because there was an air raid alarm, it was not permitted to turn on a light in order that not a single streak of light could make its way through the window shades to the outside. In other similar situations, water in the little bathtub had seemed too hot to me, so I started to scream and jump out onto the floor, splashing everything around and waking up the neighbors.
In spite of my very weak eyesight, under Mama’s direction, I copied, toward the end of the occupation, almost the entire primer of Falski, Ala Has a Cat. I was taken to the oculist, Professor Abramowicz, and to some other doctors. Mimuś had protracted dysentery, so-called cholerynka. Mama prepared gruel for him and curdled cheese according to a special medical prescription. She went all the time to the pediatrician, Dr. Bujak and wept that Mimuś might die. She pulled him through, however, watching over him day and night. Children were dying then of this disease.
Renana also fell ill. They used to go with her to Dr. Świda. Moreover, she longed a great deal for her mama. For years, she could not accept the idea that she was not near her. Renana’s mother, Mrs. Gabaj, a dentist from Olita in Lithuania who, after the bombing of their house, found herself in Butrymańce, also never accepted the separation from Renana and Beniamin. While in hiding with Zosia and Jan Kukolewski, she sobbed constantly. She did not survive the war.
The assistance shown me by Mama during the Nazi occupation of Wilno pertained both to the spiritual sphere as well as to the material one. Helena Zienowicz, after finishing the Lyceum of the Sisters of Nazareth in Wilno, had chosen life in the closed contemplative Order of the Visitation Sisters. She found herself outside the Order not of her own volition. She always longed for her Sisters from the Order on Ross Street in Wilno and for the regulated life, beloved by her, of the Visitation Sisters. She dreamt, till her death in 1985, about returning to the cloister, and it was her last wish that they should bring for her casket a habit from Poland where her Visitation Sisters had moved. Aunt Nina fulfilled this wish, and we buried Mama in a habit in the Bernardin cemetery in Wilno.
Before the war, she worked as a teacher in the elementary school of the Sisters of Nazareth in Rabka in the Tatra Mountains. She returned from there to Wilno because of the illness of her mother, Kamila, and Grandmother Kisiel, whom she buried, in great sorrow, a dozen or so years and several months before our Jewish problems fell on her.
She was also taking care of her young brother, Benedykt Zienowicz. Finally, she was managing the house shared with her elderly father, Teofil Zienowicz, to whom the Nazis stopped paying a pension, and her sister, Janina Zienowicz-Zagał (Aunt Nina), a teacher with a master’s degree who was harassed in the Polish lyceum and soon dismissed from work. Being a nanny to children was not in her life plans; she had no qualifications for it and no eagerness.
For two years, storms had been rolling over her Polish Wilno environment (Soviet, Smetonian, again Soviet, then LSSR, and finally, Nazi with a collaborating Lithuanian government). They were destroying the Polish educational system and culture, seizing cloisters, removing Polish priests from their positions, spreading terror among the Polish population as well as depriving them of basic means of support.
Smetona was the fascist dictator of Lithuania from 1926-1939.
LSSR — Lithuanian Socialist Soviet Republic, part of the USSR after World War II.
She had no contacts with Jews other than formal ones as citizens of a common city. She was enamored with the Bible, with the God of the entire Bible and its commandments, and from that derived her attitude toward the people of the Bible. She had, like her entire circle which provided me with “asylum,” an awareness of the Lord’s threshold for being human, below which one must not descend, even at the risk of one’s own life or that of one’s loved ones.
When our threesome was brought to Mama, we were supposed to stay only a few days until Jewish relatives or friends were found in Wilno where Jews had lived for centuries. There could be no reason to fear that we would be left in non-Jewish hands. Mama thought that the Nazis were organizing some shameful pogroms in small towns. Those taking care of me did not expect that such a fate could ever befall the Jews in Wilno itself.
It turned out that there was nowhere to place us. She could either “put her shoulder to the plow till she fell on her nose” from exhaustion, hunger, and fright, or demean herself and turn the children in, knowing full well what awaited them. But when, following the dictates of her conscience, she undertook this upbringing, then she only pleaded for the help of Jesus and His Suffering Mother from Ostra Brama. She protected the three of us, she provided considerable assistance in hiding our fathers whom God saved, she helped other Jews whom God placed in her path, and she lost her beloved brother, Benedykt.
She did not have enough time for him to steer his youthful enthusiasm for fighting with the occupier in a more cautious direction. He joined some amateurish partisan group fighting the Nazis. He was arrested in the apartment on Targowa Street where Mama, Benek (Benedykt), Mimuś, and I lived for a period of time while Aunt Nina was with Renana on Ostrobramska Street (prior to our being taught, each separately, to use the Polish language with each other). A search took place. They turned the entire apartment upside down. I was then sick in bed. They arrested Benek.
Mama used to run to the prison with packages. Lithuanian policemen would come to the house and interrogate Mama in my presence, threatening every minute that she would follow her brother if she did not tell them what they wanted to know. Mama kept repeating the same thing, that her brother was a railroad worker, normally went to work, that she did not know what they wanted from him. Then, one day, a policeman came and told her to take her brother back. They returned to her a tortured body. Mama cried over Benek a long time, and a big crowd came to the funeral.
In the summertime, Aunt Nina would take our threesome and Mama on vacation. One vacation, we spent in Waca near a paper mill where I started to boast and, in part, to make up stories : “Where is your papa”? “He stayed in the forest.” “And when will he come back?” “I don’t know! Papa can’t return from the forest because a wolf bit off his leg.” Frightened by my statements, Jadwiga and Konstanty, with whom we were staying, asked Mama, in the end, that we depart from there quicker than planned.
During another vacation in Angleniki with Zofia and Jan Kukolewski, partisan groups of various stripes would stop by uninvited. One time, Russians arrived who were aggressive towards the women. Mama doggedly rocked Mimuś. She was questioned with me there. She told them that we were all three her children, her husband was at the front, and she would stay faithful to him. Then, Renana and I went to sleep in an adjoining room, and Mimuś kept on crying off and on. Mama was continuously calming him down, and the Russian was advising her, in Polish, to leave the child alone and tend to him, but Mimuś did not let Mama go all night long.
Renana started to be homesick for her mama and cry, when suddenly right next to us from behind the wall covered with a kilim was heard the voice of Dr. Gabaj, “Don’t cry, Renana, the war will come to an end, and we will be together.” He spoke in Polish. And to that, Renana, responded, “But what about my mama?” There was no answer, and Renana burst out crying even more. When the partisans left, we told Mama, who admonished us that we were imagining things, that there was nobody there, only a wall, that you should not make up such things. After the war, I looked over this small cell, between the walls of the building, with a bed and other small pieces of furniture, very cleverly masked.
The Kukolewskis had three children of their own—Kazik, Marysia, and Halinka. Kazik, Renana, and I went to take the cows to pasture, and I started to recount to the herdsman, a Lithuanian, that partisans had come to our place at night. Kazik, along with the slightly scared herdsman, attempted to contradict me that this was not true. Only later, Mama, frightened, explained to me that one should not talk about partisans because other people would come and kill everyone and burn the house down.
The apartment on Ostrobramska Street, where we spent most of the occupation, consisted of a kitchen, with a place behind the stove not visible from the entrance, then one went through a passage room and, beyond, to the little room of Teofil Zienowicz. In the passage room, the three of us—Mama, Renana, and I—slept on a couch, with Mimuś in a cradle or open carriage. Aunt Nina and others who slept over periodically had makeshift beds set up for the night from small wooden sawhorses and boards and a mattress on top. The space in Teofil Zienowicz’s room was also used when more people were staying the night. The heating stove and kitchen stove burned wood or coal. There was electricity and cold water in the kitchen, a toilet outdoors, but chamber pots for the children.
When we were brought to her, Mama had three people living with her: Father Teofil, Benek, and Aunt Nina. Later, we did not all fit, and some of us lived in a very cold place on Targowa Street. On Targowa Street, it was some kind of a foyer (where Father Władysław Kisiel gave us the St. Nicholas party on New Year’s), and I remember the Christmas tree standing there and, later, the body of Benek. A small staircase led to the bedroom, and there, right near the floor, was a window. A separate entrance from the foyer led to the kitchen. In a far corner of the kitchen was a toilet with a wall built around it.
In winter, Mama chopped the ice from inside which, from the window, touched the floor. When I had pneumonia then Mama arranged bedding for me on the plate of the kitchen stove. I was afraid that I would get fried, but it turned out that it was warm and comfortable.
Once, I stood wrapped up in a blanket on this bedding of mine on the kitchen stove plate on which cooking was done in the daytime. Mama was scrubbing the floor in the kitchen and told me to recall everything from my childhood, in sequence, and repeat it several times, checking whether this was really how it was. She was angry that I did not know how old I was. Later, I had a feeling of relief when Aunt Nina arrived and told Mama, with me there, that she had seen my father who told her that Wili is four years old.
Mama instructed me to frequently repeat that in Palestine, I have an uncle, the brother of my mama, who is a rabbi and loves me very much, and that in the biggest city, New York, I have an aunt, a sister of my father, who also loves me very much. I had to frequently repeat the first name of this aunt, Reba. She said that I must talk about my aunt and uncle after the war, but that now it was not permitted to talk about this to anyone because the Germans and the Lithuanian policemen would kill us. Thanks to these lessons from Mama, I remember many details from very early childhood.
For a certain period of time, Sister Jubilatka (the oldest from Mama’s Order of Visitation Sisters) lived in the foyer. She went about dressed in a habit. We had to ask through the closed door of the bedroom whether we could come out. The grown ups talked about the Visitation Sisters who had been arrested.
Later on, Mama, our threesome, and Teofil Zienowicz returned for good to Ostrobramska Street, where we lived until Wilno came under siege by the Soviet Army. Aunt Nina lived at 6 Jagiellońska Street, Apartment No. 26, and she would come to help Mama. If Aunt did not show up for a few days, then Mama went to visit her, or she would send Renana and me, and Aunt would receive us always very warmly, treat us, and ask that we not feed the kitty who would fill herself up on mice. Unfortunately, rodents and insects presented a very burdensome problem of daily life throughout my stay in Wilno till 1959. I remember well such a saying of Mama’s, “Come, I’ll see whether you have not caught fleas again. Oh dear, here they are again…” Teofil Zienowicz used to set a mousetrap for the mice.
The main means of our support were tutoring by Aunt Nina and her underground publishing, as well as tutoring by Mama, and occasional, but very meaningful in our conditions, assistance in the form of gifts of food, more rarely, money, by compassionate friends of the women taking care of us. It came from Aunt Zosia Kukolewska who would always come with a splendid tasting treat, from the Visitation Sisters, whom we visited frequently, and who, giving up their food, always insisted that we children eat our fill, as well as from Father Kisiel.
In conditions of horrible hunger that I well remember, particularly at the beginning of our stay, Aunt Nina traveled to the country, and after a number of days there would return carrying heavy bundles and crying that it was so difficult to obtain anything to eat. She used to bring rye flour, potatoes, black beans, lentils, carrots, turnips, a can of oil, beets. Mama would grind the beets with carrots, and from this, she cooked jam for bread because there was no sugar. We would eat a plain noodle soup without anything added day after day and, sometimes, without salt. When Mama bought salt, I oversalted what was on my plate, and I could no longer eat it.
Aunt Nina and Mama hired themselves out to dig up potatoes or for other jobs in the country, though they were not cut out for it. They did not know this work at all, and they paid for it with their health. In season, our caretakers gathered huckleberries, blueberries, blackberries, mushrooms, and, conserving to the utmost our ration of sugar, they made preserves for the winter.
Mama, more than once, cried in front of me that she was given a hard time because she was a single woman with children. They said that she was chased out of the cloister because she acquired children. Again, others reproached her that so many Polish orphans were homeless, and they did not know where to place them, and here Mama took us in.
And she would say, “After all, I could return to the cloister at any time, and Mother Superior Weronika would take me in. I certainly did not seek you out. However, your fathers escaped together with you as they were, and they themselves have nothing to live on. There was nowhere to place you except, as the Germans command, to turn you over to the Gestapo, but they shoot Jewish children or swing them by the legs, head against the wall!”
The house on Targowa Street was destroyed by a bomb. At the beginning of the siege of Wilno, the chimney in the house on Ostrobramska Street was also damaged. Mama moved in a hurry with our threesome to Aunt Nina’s, because we got sick with the measles, one after another. Teofil stayed to watch over the apartment and their modest possessions. Since he was unable to cook, because the electric power plant and waterworks had been bombed, he contracted dysentery. After a few months, following the so-called liberation, he died in an infectious disease hospital.
So-called liberation – they were liberated from the Nazis by the Soviets, not by free Poles as they would have wished.
However, during the long weeks of fighting to capture Wilno, all of us (the children, sick with measles, and our caretakers) were staying in the attic on Jagiellońska Street. Mama and Aunt Nina took turns. One of them was with us, and the other, under the bullets of street fighting, was securing water, food, and carbide for lighting or looking in on their sick father, Teofil, on Ostrobramska Street. (The distance between the two apartments was about three kilometers.) There was, of course, no municipal transportation.
After “liberation,” Dr. Gabaj, who had been in hiding, came to Aunt Zosia’s from Angleniki, and began looking for a job and for a place to stay in the destroyed city of Wilno. My father, Jakub Fink, liberated by the Allies in Germany, departed for the United States. We were never to see each other again because the terrible clouds of Communism gathered over the circle of Poles who were looking after me, and if I were to describe it further, it would probably be even sadder.
It was July of 1944. The war continued. In Wilno, the horror of the Holocaust had passed, but yet it was far from being joyful. There was little joy among the Poles or among the Jews, be it those who were saved or those who were returning from the east. The only groups that were happy were the followers of Stalin or people who let themselves be seduced by Stalinism. In Wilno, under Mama’s care and with the assistance of Dr. Jerzy Orda, I completed the general education school.
In 1958, I was repatriated to Poland. In 1968, I completed the Acad- emy of Medicine in Warsaw. In 1963, I married Wacława Kuś. We have three children and live in Warsaw. Because of defective eyesight, I am a member of the Association of the Blind and have been on pension for the past fourteen years.
Warsaw, March 1993
Fragments of the remembrances of Janina Zienowicz-Zagał, “Spotkani w drodze” (Those Encountered Along the Way) were published in the book, “Ten jest z ojczyny mojej. Polacy z pomocą Żydom 1939-1945” (He is My Fellow Countryman. Poles helping Jews,1939- 1945), prepared by W. Bartoszewski and Z. Lewin, 2nd ed. (Kraków 1969), 768–72. The complete reminiscences appeared (in installments) in 1992 in the publication, “Znad Wilii” . (Author’s note)