PASSING THROUGH POLAND (1942-45)
It’s early evening as I sit on a rock in the backyard of a house in Miłanówek (a town near Warsaw), bathed in the distant glow of the burning Ghetto, digging up an anthill with a stick and watching the ants scurry about in panic, as I imagine the Jews are fifteen or twenty kilometers away.
I focus on a single ant, about a half meter from the hill, frozen in isolation -- its antennae up -- searching for a way to rejoin its brethren. Briefly, I consider poking it towards the hill. Instead, I smash it with my stick.
For some reason I find this moment important and decide to embed it in my memory. I do this by evoking an image of scrambled eggs. I don’t know why; probably because I like them and because, in Polish, the term has a soothing sound to it – jajecznica.
My mother is the maid for an elderly couple that owns the house. Her compensation is our room, left-over food and occasional access to the pantry for a few unbitten items. She still has enough cash in the little cloth bag she keeps pinned to her underpants to allow for some discretionary spending, and once a month she picks up ration stamps.
So there’s always enough for me to haggle with peasants at the local green market
over fresh milk, eggs, crisp black bread and a slab of butter wrapped in dew-moistened leaves, or preferably, a jar of lard topped by pork rind that my mother cuts up and fries into cracklings. Occasionally, I even get to buy beef, pork or fresh chicken, instead of the usual horsemeat at the butcher’s -- but not often, because he rarely has them.
Aside from potatoes, we don’t do vegetables. I don’t like them, and my mother’s idea of good nutrition is anything that makes me put on weight. But we do eat fruit: apples, pears, plums and cherries that I snatch from trees behind our and other people’s houses, and delicious wild strawberries that I pick in nearby woods. Others also pick wild mushrooms, but my mother doesn’t let me since she can’t tell which ones will kill us.
Consequently, things are not too bad. The major problem is that I have to pee in our sink. The toilets don’t lock, and my mother fears that one of the owners will barge in and catch a glimpse of my privates. She has to risk my moving my bowels outside our room, but tries to have me time it for when the owners are out or napping.
Another problem: I should be in school, but my mother doesn’t send me.
“Too dangerous,” she says. But she worries, and knocks my age down by a year to avoid suspicion, though she doesn’t need to. Many boys my age don’t attend school; their parents want them nearby and the local authorities look the other way. If asked, the boys say they go to Catholic school, and the priests back them up.
All this because of łapanki: indiscriminate roundups of people off the streets -- mostly adult males, but if the SS happens to be in charge, anyone who’s out -- in retaliation for a Nazi soldier being killed by the Polish underground, a snotty Hitler
Youth getting roughed up, etcetera.
A year ago in Warsaw a łapanka, (łapanki is plural), was almost a daily occurrence. My Uncle Manek was a big fan, because in contrast to a house-to-house search, conducted methodically in the standard German manner -- and thus boring -- a łapanka was a happenstance event.
Two trucks would cut off a city block, seemingly at random. Soldiers would jump out and grab every man who failed to duck into a doorway or alley--if you got away, they didn’t chase you. Then a big van would pull up and the seized were herded into it. On rare occasions when the Germans were really angry, they shot people on the spot. It’s those łapanki that made it into the newspapers --the others were shrugged off.
Manek, who enjoyed strolling about Warsaw, showed me a document printed in German, with several swastikas stamped on it, identifying him as an employee of an obscure, possibly nonexistent, agency that he waved in the face of anyone who nabbed
him during a łapanka, and which invariably got him released.
“You have to learn how to play the game,” he told me.
I still can hum the nonsense jingle he taught me (it rhymes in Polish):
Axe, hoe, rot-gut, glass (szkląka)
In the evening an air-raid, in the daytime a łapanka.
Axe, hoe, rot-gut, bread.
Five after eight (curfew), a bullet in the head!
Miłanówek is outside the standard łapanka zone, but every so often, it has a mini
one—just big enough to keep the locals on their toes. So people stick close to home,
mind their own business and hope that nothing bad happens to any of our Germans. Still,
I make a few friends in the neighborhood -- Andrzej, Danek, Jendrek, Tomek and Marek, my best friend who lives next door.
I have a photo: two seven year olds kneeling in a pasture. Marek cradles a baby goat in his arms. Totally out of character, unless he kills it later and takes it home for his mother to cook. What he likes to cradle is a sub-machine gun. We don’t come across one often, but when we do, Marek strips it and puts it back together in minutes. Then we sell it to the Underground. Since we’re patriots we don’t charge much, and they pay because we also bring them rifles, ammo, hand-grenades -- anything of value that we find buried in the old battlefields around town. Danek undoubtedly snaps the photo. His father has cameras and a darkroom in his basement. We don’t ask why.
But it’s not all business. Occasionally, when the mood strikes us, we throw a box or two of live ammunition into a fire we start in a field, then run like hell. (We stop that after someone we know gets his arm blown off). Rarely, during hot weather, we go swimming in the local pond. It’s the last that gets my mother riled up.
I tell her about it because I tell her everything. Something terrible will happen if I don’t, she repeatedly assures me.
“What do you mean you went swimming? Did you undress in front of your friends?”
“How do you know they didn’t see your penis? Oy, everything is lost!” A couple more “oys” and some knuckle cracking-- then she regroups:
“Give me your belt and bend over.” I do and she whips me– hard. The next day we take the train to Warsaw and walk to the edge of the smoldering ghetto.
“This is what you’ll do to us,” she proclaims.
Once back in Miłanówek, we head straight for church, where my mother does her crying. Christians cry in church, so it raises no suspicion. I sit next to her and keep occupied by reciting a few Hail Marys along with the priest, (by now I have the Polish liturgy down pat), and counting and recounting the babushkas atop the heads of the ever- present old ladies, until she sheds her quota of tears.
She must feel guilty about whipping me because, that evening, she makes matzos on our hotplate. They’re not hard to make. You knead some dough, flatten it, puncture it all
over with a fork and fry it in a pan. They taste almost like the real thing; although I find it hard to recall what the real thing tastes like. But you have to make sure the door to the room is locked. Someone walks in and it’s all over.
My Aunt Jadzia, my mother’s younger sister, joins us in Miłanówek. I don’t know how they make contact, but my mother has her ways. The Polish underground does not have an exclusive; there’s a Jewish one as well. It doesn’t fight, (except in the Warsaw Ghetto), but it takes care of its own, and my mother is part of it.
Periodically she gets up early, sets out some food, instructs me to stay in the room—which I sometimes do— leaves and returns late in the evening, with enough American dollars stashed in her underpants and enough new information stashed inside her head to keep us going until the next trip.
Shortly after one such foray, Jadzia arrives and takes a maid’s job in a house about a half kilometer from ours. Jadzia’s— she used to be “Dziunia,” but now becomes Jadzia forever—full name according to her phony papers is “Jadwiga Olszewska.” This is a
problem because she is single and my mother’s maiden name on her non-phony papers
is “Terklowna”—their real name was “Terkel.” So they concoct a story that their
mother had remarried – as if anyone cared. Turns out Jadzia’s new employer does care, asks to see their papers, and buys their tale. I become the courier between the two. You never know when the local gendarmes will stop an adult for a papers check, but they generally don’t bother kids.
On the other hand, no one is safe when the SS are around. One day I’m on my way home from Jadzia’s when I spot a storm trooper walking toward me. I’m about to cross the street when a couple exits a bar and the man bumps into the German. He’s obviously drunk, because instead of apologizing, he starts yelling. The trooper unholsters his gun, there’s a loud pop and the man falls down. The woman kneels and applies a handkerchief to his head. She neither looks up, nor does she utter a word.
The trooper re-holsters his gun and resumes walking, his eyes focused on me. I decide he can’t tell I’m a Jew from that distance, cross the street slowly and don’t look back. The back of my neck tingles and little beads of sweat flow down into my eyes. I force myself to think about scrambled eggs. When I get home I say nothing to my mother. I don’t want her keeping me from going out.
For me, the war ends as abruptly as it begins. I’m awakened one morning by the sound of distant gunfire. A few hours later a group of disheveled, unarmed, German soldiers shuffles by on the street below my window, then a second, then a third. By now people are gathering on both sides of the street. Then a tank column, each tank topped by a dozen or so Russian soldiers, holding on with one hand, waving to the crowd with the other, speeds by in the same direction. A few locals wave back; most don’t. No telling if a German counterattack is in store.
It isn’t. Later that day the Germans are back with their hands on their heads, shepherded by the Russians. And that’s that.
The next day my friends and I visit the battle-site: lots of shot-up trucks, armor and artillery; lots of dead soldiers from both sides. One Russian is still alive, but the top of his head is gone, as if he were scalped by Indians. He points to a canteen next to him. It’s empty, and we go to fetch him water from a nearby brook.
By the time we return, he’s dead— mouth wide open, rotted teeth, eyes staring into nowhere. We go through his coat pockets and find a half-filled pack of Russian cigarettes and a box of matches. We light up, but they taste worse than the local stuff and we toss them. His coat is bloodied, but his boots are in good shape, so we take them and later sell them.
I pass on my share of the money. My mother would have a thing or two to say about my stealing a dead man’s shoes.
George Bear is a retired M.D. and lives in Manhattan.