PASSING THROUGH POLAND (1942-45)
Our new home is a room on the top floor of a six-story walk-up at the corner of Marszałkowska and Wilcza Streets. My mother makes me memorize the address in case we’re separated; also my new last name --Berowski. Unlike other Jews, who buy forged Aryan documents, she gets real ones for free by targeting a sympathetic-looking clerk at an ID office, and after shedding a few tears and pointing to the fatherless six year old at her side, convincing him that she is a Polish officer’s widow whose papers were stolen.
She does this as soon as we get off the train from Złoczów, a town in the Galicia region of German-occupied Poland, and she finds out the address of the nearest ID office, which isn’t near, but where she drags me and our suitcase. Afterwards she buys a newspaper, looks for rooms for rent and drags me again to our current location where, once in the room, I plop on the bed and fall asleep fully dressed.
Our room has a bed, a closet, a small table, two chairs, a sink and a hotplate. The bathroom is in the hallway. Our time is neatly divided by two sirens. The first wails in the evening, after we eat, when Soviet bombers are on the way. My mother clears the table and pulls the chairs up to the window, where we watch the graceful arcs of anti-aircraft fire and the flares of nearby explosions, and guess at how close to us a bomb will hit by the sound it makes while falling. The other tenants are in the basement. My mother will have none of that.
“Better here than in Treblinka,” she tells me.
I agree, since I know all about Treblinka. A detailed account of what goes on there is but one of many horrendous examples I get of what will happen to us if I ever let my guard down in any one of a hundred ways --peeing in front of others is a recurring favorite --and reveal our true identities. In any case, I prefer enjoying the fireworks to being herded into a dank, unlit cellar amidst a bunch of sweaty adults and screaming babies (we try that once). The second, all-clear, siren sounds at some time in the morning and wakes us up -- we’re either in bed or still in the chairs.
After breakfast I go up to the roof, where I watch occasional dog fights between Soviet and German fighters, eager to see a Messerschmitt go down, which I never do, oblivious to the possibility that a stray bullet might hit me. My mother, totally obsessed by only one danger--us being fingered as Jews -- doesn’t mind my doing this. Occasionally she joins me and, after I apprise her of its details, compliments me on my grasp of aerial combat.
Somewhere I have photos of us, the metal rooftops of buildings in the background; me, skinny, shirtless and barefoot, arms spread, one leg raised behind me, teeth bared --a fighter-plane in action. She, fully clothed, both legs down, one knee turned slightly inward, arms drawn in at a shoulder level, hands pointing out, palms down, like duckling wings, head tilted -- big smile.
That’s our routine except for a visitor here and there. Throughout the war my mother maintains contact with Jews she knows. I’m not sure how, but she does it. Occasionally she gives them shelter. One -- a deposed synagogue big-shot from Złoczów, now a church janitor in Warsaw -- comes into the room, sits on the bed and starts bawling like a baby. This is the first time I see a grown man cry and don’t know how to react until my mother rolls her eyes at me. So I do nothing. She, in turn, quiets him down, gives him money and directs him out the door.
“The fool will get us killed if I let him stay,” she explains.
The others are pretty much the same, until, during our third or fourth month in Warsaw, Uncle Manek, my mother’s only brother, finds us. Before the war Manek was a successful architect and womanizer, ex-star soccer player; also ex-Zionist and ex- Communist. He joined in pursuit of women he adored, quit after his ardor cooled. His three sisters adored him. So did I. During family gatherings back in Zloczow, I’d be passed around, stroked and kissed by assorted relatives, until I reached Manek, who would grab me by my legs and swing me, ignoring my mother’s screams. I loved it.
Manek is unique because nothing scares him, not even my mother -- I don’t know anyone else like that. He happens to come by on a day when the Gestapo is making one of its periodic sweeps looking for Jews, Gypsies and other undesirables. My mother and I have a routine for this. She takes to her bed while I open the door and tell the agents that she has a contagious disease and they’d better stay out. Now she tells Manek to get in bed
beside her and hide under the covers.
When the knock comes, I open the door and see two Gestapos in black leather coats. One looks peaked from having walked up six flights -- a good sign. The other has a huge police dog on a leash and looks meaner than his dog. I tell them my story, and they buy it. I glance back into the room and see a large toe protruding from a torn sock waving at me from under the bedcovers.
Afterwards my mother yells at Manek, but I worship him. The next day he takes me
to the circus where I see jugglers, acrobats, tight-wire walkers, bears on unicycles,
clowns and a huge, charcoaled warrior dressed in leopard skin, who shakes his spear at the audience, lets out a wail and takes a bow. That night I dream of him spearing and roasting me over a fire. Manek also takes me to the zoo, movies and soccer matches,
where we enjoy ourselves as if the war doesn’t exist. And when he brings me home he always hands me a wad of cash for my mother. She won’t take it from him directly because she’s certain he’s into something shady that will get us all killed.
It doesn’t get us all killed --- only him. One day I find my mother in tears and know that Manek is dead. I discover that he doesn’t die a Jew’s death. An SS officer finds him in bed with his girlfriend and shoots him. The next version of the story is that Manek punches the German, jumps out of a ground-floor window “in his altogether,” and nearly manages to escape before getting shot in the back. I like that one better. Somewhere around Warsaw there is a grave with a cross planted on it and my uncle Manek inside.
We have to leave Warsaw because my mother, a stickler for having the right documents, can’t bring herself to get rid of a wrong one. She hides her wedding certificate, which identifies her as a Jew, under an armoire in the hallway where a cleaning woman finds it. Our landlady, a decent sort, advises my mother that her secret won’t stay one for long. But regulations don’t allow for free travel; you must have a reason, in writing. So my mother decides that I need a health cure, a dose of fresh mountain air to relieve my catarrhs.
“You’re going to a doctor,” she says, “Just don’t show him your penis.”
“What do I say?”
“Tell him you’re embarrassed.”
I’m down to my underpants; the doctor directs me to take them off.
“I’m embarrassed, I’m embarrassed,” I yell out as I grab my crotch with both hands.
“What’s the matter with you? --listen to the doctor,” says my mother. “Children –
they can be impossible.”
The doctor understands. He signs the paper and we’re off for the hills.
Maków is a village at the foot of the Tatra Mountains. We rent a room at a wheel-barrow maker’s house. Nice man. He lets me nail metal rims on the wheels whenever I offer to do it. It’s not hard because he first punches holes in the rims with some sort of gadget.
There’s lots of snow that winter, in which I enjoy playing, and we eat a lot of reconstituted potato soup, due to a temporary shortage of horsemeat, chicken and canned vegetables. I don’t mind this at all because I find the horsemeat nauseatingly sweet, while the chicken is mostly bones and fat with a few feathers mixed in and must be cooked for hours to rid it of its smell, and the vegetables make me run to the “john” minutes after I eat them -- no matter how long they’re cooked.
I also don’t mind our current menu because my mother diversifies it by changing its name. In Polish, potato soup is zupa kartoflana. It’s that, kartoflana zupa, the first day, the next, zupa z (made of), and kartofluw, the third. Then she goes international: zuppen aus kartofflen, kartoffles dans une soupe, zuppa di kartoffli. She keeps at it until the shortage is over.
I remember two other things about Maków. One is trudging from house to house in
crackling snow, with my landlord’s children, singing Christmas carols. The oldest carries a pole with a cardboard cutout of the manger scene atop it, enclosed in plywood and lit by candles from behind. At each stop we are given bowls of hot borscht with uszki (small
meat dumplings). On the way and back we meet other groups doing the same thing. The
crisp, windless, starry night, the singing, the candle-lit boxes bobbing up and down create a magical scene that, for an hour or two, makes me forget about the war. But no longer than that.
The second thing I remember is a neighbor’s persistent advances to my mother which force us to leave Maków. His name is Kogut, “rooster” in Polish, and he has a wife, with a big pregnant belly, whose eyes shoot daggers at my mother.
We end up in Kraków (Cracow), after a detour to Płaszów, a bona-fide concentration camp –the only one we stay in, a stay I absolutely don’t remember. This is strange, because I distinctly recall our being herded off a train into waiting trucks by Nazi soldiers, and the colorful outfits and frightened faces of the two Górale (mountain men) facing us in our truck; even the fact that each holds a fiddle case in his arms, as if he were cradling a baby. But after that my mind is blank until we reach Kraków. Apparently we spend a couple of days in Plaszów’s non-Jewish enclave before my mother manages to spring us. I have no idea how she does it—and she never tells me. The only thing I can think of is that the Germans occasionally round up Poles for an unanticipated work
detail, then release them.
Kraków is memorable because of a severe earache that my mother cures by pouring
warm oil into my ear, since she doesn’t want to chance my seeing another doctor; also, because our landlord from Maków visits us there once, and an air-raid siren wails. Just an alert – Kraków was never bombed – but the poor guy turns ashen. After he leaves, my mother and I laugh – like you wouldn’t believe. Kraków is also memorable because that’s where my mother, down to her last few pieces of sellable jewelry, hears about a job.