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All That Was: Chapter Two - Ramblings Of A Little Girl

“Mother often scolded me for being naughty. Once, when I was a young child, I hid in a kitchen cupboard to surprise my Mother on her return from town. I did not know that the cupboard contained a 'kopa' of eggs (that is, 60 eggs). Unwittingly, I created a king-sized serving of raw scrambled eggs. The ensuing mess was indescribable, and Mother went into a rage!…’’ Lusia Przybyszewicz recalls in wonderfully vivid detail her comfortable childhood in Poland before the onset of World War Two.

Lusia’s book, All That Was, which gives an account of how she survived the Warsaw ghetto holocaust then worked in Nazi Germany under an assumed identity, is available from PO 404, Vaucluse, NSW, 2030, Australia ($25 Australian, plus postage).

Initially, in my recollection of my early childhood, I found it difficult to consider separately the first six years of my life as an only child. During the subsequent years, my little brother, Bolek, was about and everything happened 'in twos' so to speak.

We lived in Lodz in a third floor apartment at 102 Sinkiewicza street, named after the famous Polish writer, Henryk Sienkiewicz, the author of Quo Vadis. When I revisited Poland in 1977, with my son Claude, the house in which we used to live was still standing. The caretaker told us we were lucky to see it, because the buildings were destined for demolition in two months time. On our visit to Poland in August 1997, twenty years later, we found, to our utter amazement, the very dilapidated house still standing!

In the early days, blocks of flats in Poland consisted mainly of four buildings, each about four or five stories high. Together, they created a quadrangle. Each floor had two flats with a front and back staircase. When one looked out of the back windows, one gained a fascinating insight into the life and habits of all the tenants on the three sides.

In my early childhood, one of my favoured pastimes was watching the goings on of our neighbours. Later on, when I was older, I refined the process by contemplating the scene through my parents' binoculars. In the middle of the quadrangle, down below, was a square, paved courtyard. A rectangular wooden stand in its centre served for clapping dust out of carpets.

The maids took turns at hanging their employers' carpets on it and then clapping them with a carpet-beater (trzepaczka) until all the dust came out. This custom provided the maids with a perfect opportunity to gossip. They called out from their respective windows, exchanging views and news. The vigilant concierge (strozka) was the boss of the courtyard, and she was always about. She absorbed information about the tenants, and, later on, used that information as she saw fit.

The concierge lived in a tiny lodging under the front staircase. From her abode, she watched every thing that moved. The main entrance to the entire block was called 'brama' in Polish. It was locked by 11:00 p.m. If one wished to enter the building after that hour, one had to ring the bell and face the very cranky concierge in her night attire. Unless one placed some coins on the outstretched hand, all hell would break loose.

Our home life before Bolek's arrival was very happy. I grew up in a relaxed, carefree, secure, very comfortable environment. My parents’ contrasting natures complemented each other: Mother was quick tempered, but she had a heart of gold. Father, who was generally placid, had a wonderful sense of humour and great wit. He would very artfully diffuse many potential disasters with some disarmingly funny observations.
Whenever my parents felt in the mood, they sang and danced together to the tune of a disk played on the black, hand operated gramophone. More often than not the music was Viennese. Our collection of Strauss waltzes and Kalmann's and Lehar's operettas seemed inexhaustible. Even to this day, such music fills me with a warm glow.

We also cherished the heart-rending songs of Hanka Ordonówna. In my youth, she was, in a way, our Polish-Jewish equivalent of France's Josephine Baker. Ordonowna's 'best-seller', 'Meine Yiddishe Mame,' told about the longing for the mother and home suffered by a Jewish daughter who emigrated to America. This song is famous throughout the Jewish world.

Thanks to my Father's double-sized record collection of all the great operas, I was pretty familiar with many famous tunes before the age of seven. Steeped in music to such a degree from a very early age, it has become part of my life by natural progression. No other artistic medium has such power over my emotions. The fact that I can no longer sing properly causes me much frustration. Although no one would believe it now, I once had a good mezzo soprano voice. As long as I can remember, I loved walking apace and singing. Many events even these days come to my mind in association with tunes.
At home, we often sang together with my parents. Father in his youth was a member of the synagogue choir.

Mother often scolded me for being naughty. Once, when I was a young child, I hid in a kitchen cupboard to surprise my Mother on her return from town. I did not know that the cupboard contained a 'kopa' of eggs (that is, 60 eggs). Unwittingly, I created a king-sized serving of raw scrambled eggs. The ensuing mess was indescribable, and Mother went into a rage!

I remember receiving only one hiding from Father. He smacked me after I was caught sharpening his 'cut throat' on the heavy leather belt hanging in the bathroom. This razor was used exclusively by his personal barber, who came every morning to give Father a shave.

We were well off. We had a live-in maid as well as a German Fraulein, who replaced the Polish nanny to look after me.
At the age of four I remember visiting my paternal grandfather Przybyszewicz, sick in bed. His bushy black beard contrasted sharply with a very pale yet cheerful face. We were alone in his bedroom. With a wicked smile, he raised a corner of his pillow a little, revealing several cigarette butts hidden underneath. That terrible addiction to smoking cost him his life. In fact, he died soon after that visit of mine.

Grandmother lived on until after the German invasion of Lodz in September 1939. She lived at Kopernika No 4 on the first floor. The house was still there in August 1997! Claude photographed me in the staircase in front of her former flat.
We visited Grandmother every Sunday morning after my walk with Father. She was short, and she had a nose just like mine. She always wore a wig, as was the custom of the Orthodox Jewish women. She was not very pretty, rather inquisitive and enormously shrewd. It was very hard to keep anything from her. She leafed through the pages of the daily newspaper each morning, to make sure none of the pages was missing. If the 'In Memoriam' column wasn't there, she would immediately attempt to guess which relative's death her children were trying to conceal from her.

On Jewish festive days she would make a tour of the city in the 'dorozka,' to make sure that all of her children's families observed the rituals. We readied ourselves for inspection, and anxiously watched from our balcony for her sudden arrival.
In 1938, when it was no longer possible for her to obtain her sleeping pills from Gdansk, her sons substituted them with placebo tablets placed in the original boxes. They helped my grandmother sleep just the same!

My Mother was born in Warsaw. She was the eleventh of eleven children. Her father died when she was very small My grandmother Fragman was managing their leather business throughout the Russian occupation both prior to and during the First World War. Her customers were in the main Cossacks who purchased saddles and the like for their horses. Business was brisk and lucrative.

At home, the older children had to look after the younger ones. Poor Mother, who was the youngest child in the family, had practically no rights and no voice in decision-making. The food that was dished out at meal times had to be eaten without a murmur or a whinge. If Mother dared to ask for the head of the fish, she was served the tail.

As a child I heard this story repeated to me whenever I was particularly difficult.

Mother was always expected to wear 'hand-me-downs.' When she was invited to someone's party, she would bring along a bottle that once upon a time contained Eau de Cologne. One of her older sisters had refilled it with water just for the occasion. 'You can still smell it a bit,' her siblings would tell her by way of encouragement.

Babcia Fragman maintained a regal bearing in her old age. Her wrinkled face could not hide an air of refinement that so characterized the attractive female species of the entire clan. I loved her as much for her warmth as for her scholarship. Her overall graciousness captivated me. In like manner she also wore a wig. Always neatly dressed, with a lace jabot adorning the front of her dress, she certainly left a lasting impression on this grand-daughter.

On my visits to Warsaw with my Mother, I relished the long moments spent listening to babcia's tales. She had a French 'Dame de Companie', until the day of her marriage. This enabled her, at times, to practise a little French with me.
I appreciated the fact, that, unlike many adults, she showed real interest in what I thought or had to say. I also remember feeling very touched by her great kindness and wisdom.
As a little girl, I cherished our Sundays at home. Firstly, there was breakfast in bed. This included slices of very fresh, sweet, thickly buttered chale (brioche), washed down with children's coffee (made from wheat). One of my special Sunday treats was a ride on the heavy floor polisher which my Father would push forward and back with me squatting on it.

Another highlight was my walks with Father. I held his hand as we walked along a particular stretch of Piotrkowska Street, unofficially called 'Deptak' (the Double Bay of Lodz). We would end up at the cafe of the Grand Hotel. It was a very trendy establishment in those days. I loved the ambiance and the noise of the place, the animated exchanges of well dressed businessmen, and the mingling of the aroma of good coffee with cigar smoke. I used to nibble at my cake while Father discussed business matters with other textile men. There were hardly any children to be seen.

Amongst the crowd that gathered there, I recall a Mr P. who was reputed to have amassed a fortune without being able to either read or write. He was in the habit of buying two local daily newspapers at a time. He would place them in the outside pockets of his expensive overcoat, one on each side. Should someone wish, let's say, to borrow the Republika newspaper from him, he would raise both arms and say: 'Do help yourself.'

Once in a while, in the summer months, we travelled by train to the country to visit our farmer friends. They had a Shetland pony which I always believed to be mine. I used to ride on it: it was heaven.

Washing days at our home both at Sienkiewicza Street and later on at Wolczanska Street always created an upheaval in the kitchen. Our country maid played the major part in helping us to cope with the chaos. She would place a huge wooden tub filled with soapy water on a sturdy stool by the kitchen
window, and fill it with dirty washing. She would then move on to scrubbing each item on a corrugated board, called 'pralka,' which stood at an angle against the inner lining of the tub. The board had a built-in recess for soap. The white clothes were then boiled on top of the kitchen stove, in a special cauldron, before being returned to the tub, where they were left to soak overnight in 'blue.' Our maid used the bathtub for colours. The smell of the boiling linen was distinct. My Father never stepped into the kitchen, but sometimes, on his return home from the office in the evening, he would ask about the smell: 'Is it washing or cabbage?' He never could tell.

To get rid of the excess water, our maid would pass each washed item through a hand-operated mangle screwed on to the tub. This was the final touch. She then carried the whole load to the drying area, before the pegging out could get under way.

The drying area (strych) was situated under the roof, above the top floor of the building. The washing lines were hung lengthways and crossways. The floor was covered with sand for fire safety. There was no glass in the windows. This allowed the fresh air to flow freely and dry the clothes. I can still recall the lovely clean smell of sparkling white sheets moving gently in the icy draught.

An ironing woman visited us periodically to spend some hours in our kitchen, attending to the more tricky items, such as the heavily starched white collars and cuffs my Father wore to his office. The Maid took bed linen to a special steam press down the street. She walked both ways carrying the heavy basket.
I was not an easy child. In fact, to say that I was a stubborn, spoilt little girl, sometimes given to tantrums, would be closer to the mark. I hated eating, and that was a worry.

My Mother travelled with me across Poland to seek advice from all the great pediatricians, but her efforts were all in vain! It never occurred to my parents to try the 'starvation method' on me.

In my defence, I should stress that the menus dished out to me were awful. To begin with, I had to endure the curse of my childhood: the much detested daily serving of semolina cooked in milk. I did not appreciate imported bananas either. Then there were the excessive servings of spinach, which is disliked by most children. And I was no exception.

To this day I loathe the smell of boiling milk, and I resumed eating bananas only in Queensland, after my marriage. I still avoid spinach if I can.

I remember one day summoning enough courage to ask my Mother why she never ate spinach. She said: 'Shut up and eat your spinach!'

I generally refused to swallow my semolina irrespective of whether I was cajoled or threatened. I would keep it to one side of my mouth and if someone pushed my cheek in to try to get me to swallow it, I would move the offending substance to the other side of my mouth. One story goes that I awoke one morning in my cot with the semolina from the last evening meal still in my mouth.

On Saturdays, I was offered a special treat: some grated chocolate sprinkled over the semolina. But I could achieve this goal only if I had eaten all of my semolina during the week. It rarely happened.

I was known in the neighbourhood as 'Lusia polkni' (Lusia, swallow).

My German Fraulein used to take me for walks in the park, where I was allowed to play with other nice, well-dressed little girls. She wore a nun-like dark blue habit, black shoes and stockings, and a white wimple. At home, she read me stories, watched me play with my porcelain doll, Krystyna, or with my building blocks.

The other toy that I remember, was a set of small lead soldiers. They represented the Polish armies throughout history. I used to play with them at waging war. My Fraulein spoke only German with me, so that by the age of six I spoke the language fluently. I slept with my much-loved brown and battered teddy bear which squeaked when I pressed it.

I had only one playmate in those days. His name was Ignace (Ignas) Taub. He lived with his parents beneath our flat. Our mums were great friends. He was three years older than I was, and he loved showing off to me. His terrifying deeds used to fascinate me. He taught me how to organize fly races. We would catch flies by hand and pull off their wings. We would then place them in empty chocolate boxes (bombonierki) and race our teams against each other on the parquet floors.
I remember vividly our summer holidays in Zopot (Copoty) on the Baltic Sea. I was four and Ignace was seven. Our mums booked into a very elegant spotlessly clean German guesthouse. Our fathers stayed behind in Lodz as they could not leave work.

With my impossible eating habits, I refused everything on
offer at the dinner table. One day, my Mother was beyond herself with rage. Under her breath, she ordered me to swallow. Out of fear and against my better judgement, I swallowed. Almost immediately, I horrified our very formal, pompous German guests by vomiting all over the white starched table cloth.

One morning, my hero, Ignace, spotted a large hessian bag in the middle of the highly polished parquet floor of the lobby. Things were moving around inside it. We decided to investigate its contents. Ignace undid the knot and unwittingly released a large number of live shrimps. They had been delivered by a local fisherman to be cooked for the evening meal. The shrimps came rushing out, making scratching noises on the slippery floor. Pandemonium broke out not unlike the chaos depicted in the English television series 'Faulty Towers.' All of the ladies present shrieked in horror.

After those two episodes, our young mothers booked us into a German children's boarding house. They obviously wanted some relief from our antics and some leisure time to themselves. The Zopot Casino was very famous and tempting in those days.

We were both unaccustomed to the German cooking in our new abode. We found the food so dreadful that even Ignace, who usually ate like a pig, refused to touch it. All the artificially-coloured puddings were served hot, and they shook on the plate. I remember it well.

We slept in dormitories: one for boys, one for girls. No wonder that we spent only one week there. One night, Ignace came into our dormitory and woke me up. He whispered into my ear: 'We are getting out of here.' I was very excited. I silently crept out of bed. In our nighties, we proceeded down the stairs, out the front door, and onto the road. Ignace knew the way. Buoyed up by the full moon we walked barefoot to our destination. Our mothers were speechless when they saw their little darlings back, in their night attire, well after midnight.
We spent other summers together in the Polish Tatry Mountains.

I have vague memories of different holidays spent at the famous resorts like Krynica, the birthplace of the great Polish tenor Jan Kiepura, and at Rabka. I remember being told of an adventure we had at the Rabka railway station while we were waiting for the Lodz night express to take us home. I tripped and fell from the platform on to the track. I was screaming blue murder, and someone immediately pulled me back up. In the process, I sustained a badly cut lip which produced a huge swelling. My poor Mother sat up all night in our sleeper, applying cold compresses to my lip, in her attempt to reduce the swelling before my Father saw it.

I remember two other families from our Sienkiewicza Street times: the Karnowskis and the Abramowiczes.
Mrs A., who also lived on the third floor, had a grandson named Moniek. He was cross-eyed. He shared my extreme dislike of the fish we were served each Friday. To coax him to eat his fish, his grandma would chew each mouthful to check for fish bones and then push it into the boy's mouth. I do recall my utter revulsion at this practice.


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