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All That Was: Chapter Six - Koberowo

“As we were walking, the wood unexpectedly opened onto a meadow, where a solitary cow stood grazing. My companion was a Jewish boy from the city, and he froze for a second in speechless terror. Then, without a thought for me, he ran away at great speed, leaving me alone with the cow…’’ Lusia Przybyszewicz’s extraordinary memory enables her to conjour up portraits of her schoolday companions. But the darkest clouds were on the horizon. When Hitler’s hordes seized Poland, many of those companions were to end up in Treblinka, one of the many Nazi death camps.

Lusia’s profoundly moving and wonderfully well-written autobiography is available from P0 404, Vaucluse, NSW, 2030, Australia ($25 Australian, plus postage).

Though, as I had already acknowledged, I blossomed out into a rather likeable class member, deep down, I often suffered crises of confidence. As a general rule I have always felt a little wary of strangers and at ease only amongst close friends. Even now, in my seventies, I still cannot cope with pretentious, insincere, humourless and supercilious members of the human race. Beware, pompous twits, wherever you are!

I hasten now to introduce, one by one, my childhood friends, who remain linked, both emotionally and physically, with every facet of my early life. These girls were my mates until the Holocaust wiped most of them out. I loved them and miss them now all too much to allow their memory to fade.
Besides, after the monstrous carnage of the Lodz Jewish community during the Nazi era, there might be no one else alive to remember them. Even if such a detailed account does not present a wholly titillating subject to the reader, under the circumstances, I must humbly ask for his forbearance.

We used to have two major clusters of friends within our class. I had the rare honour of being welcomed by both of them. The first group evolved over numerous summers spent together in a sort of holiday camp, run by Mr. Lucjan Kober and his wife. We named the camp 'Koberowo.'

Mr. Kober was a well-known Polish intellectual. He was reputed to be one of only four persons in the whole of Poland who could hold a meaningful conversation in Latin. He spoke French like a native. His general knowledge was vast to say the least. To us, he was not only a walking encyclopaedia but also a father figure. He was most likely in his forties, and he cut a fine figure of a man: tall, muscular, and handsome. His humanity, intelligence, and great wit were instantly revealed by the look in his eyes.

By contrast, his wife, who was Jewish by birth, was small and rather retiring. She taught at the School for the Retarded in Lodz. Their only daughter Alice, two classes ahead of us, was also a student at Orzeszkowa. I believe she still lives in Poland, in Wroclaw, ( formerly Breslau) where she used to be a Medical Practitioner.

Over the years, Koberowo evolved into a distinct entity. We all felt special for being its members: a sort of elite you could say. Apart from several girls from my class, there were some boys from Lodz private high schools, a few youngsters from Radom, Warsaw and, on occasions, even some from France. Mr. Kober, with his extraordinary personality, was both our idol and our mentor.

Each summer, we would spend about two months in the very North of Poland, on the tip of the Hel peninsula, at Jastrzebia Gora (the Mount of Eagles). Nearby, the snow-white lighthouse surveyed the misty, turbulent waters of the Baltic Sea.
One summer in fact, we had the rare privilege of seeing the inside of this mysterious edifice. I still remember the hazardous final moments of our ascent to the very top. We had to climb a small vertical rope ladder on the outside, to access the very highest platform surrounding the rotating lens. It felt awesome to glimpse the ground down below through the gaps between the flimsy rungs. The wind was howling, filling our nostrils with sharp salty air.

Our two-storey villa stood within large grounds, and from it we had an unobstructed view of the sea landscape. Boys' and girls' quarters were separated, but of course all kinds of innocent pranks went on regardless. We all participated in every activity.

The day commenced with an early morning wake up call by Mr K. in person. He darted from room to room in his famous striped pyjamas, holding a large mug of cold water in one hand, a bell in the other, and calling out ‘auf’ (up) in German. Whoever did not rise instantaneously received a watering.
After some excruciating exercises out in the open, which we had to perform in all weathers, we were ready for breakfast. We took turns at serving and clearing the tables. After breakfast, we had to make our beds and undertake general tidying up routines before we earned the right to go to the beach. There, we devoted many happy hours to diving under the dumping waves of the Baltic, playing ball games, or, just for fun, reproducing some biblical scenes from the Garden of Eden. This latter exercise invariably featured a flat-chested me in the role of Adam and Vitka as Eve.

Other features of our days consisted simply of lazing for hours in the sand, soaking up the sun. Great friendships blossomed during those sessions. Mr.K., both on arriving and exiting, would adopt a squatting position, and then, in front of our eyes, blatantly change in and out of his red and white striped pyamas. Their pattern, to our great merriment, was identical to the emergency phone box on the beach. From a distance, in the glare of the sun, you could not distinguish between them.

We returned to a three-course lunch. When we had ice-ceam-for-dessert days, those on table duty received double helpings. After the big meal, we returned to our rooms for a compulsory, quiet rest period.

In the afternoons, our custom was to engage in adventurous games in the fields and forests, unless, of course, we contemplated a long excursion for the following day. In that case, we would leave at sunrise, in pairs, wearing our hiking gear, put together the night before. Every pair had to share a backpack, blankets rolled into the shape of a horse's collar (chomajto), and a pannikin.

We might stay away for a couple of nights to explore places of interest in the neighbourhood. Mr. K. made us march for hours in rain and shine, singing semi-military Polish tunes, on top of our lungs, to keep up the pace. We had our makeshift meals by the roadside or in a peasant's hut. At night we would crash from exhaustion into the softness of thick piles of hay, stored in the loft of a farmer's barn. Our exhilaration was thus complete.

On ordinary days, after dinner, we would often dance to the music of gramophone records, but, certainly, reading or scholarly discussions with Mr.K. were of the essence in the evenings.

He had a habit of reading to us some extracts from his French volumes of Conan Doyle's detective stories. He could directly translate these stories into word-perfect Polish. He would stop reading just before the climax, loudly slam the book shut and then, with a mischievous smile, challenge us to work out the solution to the murder by the next morning.

Finally, bedtime came, but it was preceded by ablutions in army-like metal hand basins. On our very mad evenings, we would send the basins tumbling down the flight of wooden stairs and listen to the ear-shattering din.

Most of us were accustomed to a happy, albeit rather conventional, Jewish middle class existence and therefore, for us, this holiday at Koberowo was unique. It most decidedly stretched our minds, changed our focus, and enlarged our horizons. For the times in which we lived, Mr. K'.s irreverent observations about matters of principle and his notion of values sounded unorthodox. His comments in relation to sex seemed particularly outrageous.

We greatly admired his 'daring'. He encouraged us to think independently, make our own choices and judgements, and, most importantly, to defend our views. Any subject was open for discussion. Our critical sense was tested again and again. Everyone's views were taken into account. Mr K. understood each of us extremely well and this gave him the advantage of knowing how to lead us on.

On my return home, I seemed to be more mentally alert, more vocal, and maybe a touch wiser. There were times when I distinctly felt that my parents might be a little envious of my affection for Mr. K.

Such sentiments I am sure were shared by most of us.
Many wonderful moments at Koberowo come flooding through my mind whenever I look back to those times.

My bosom friend was Vitka Ch. We shared the same desk for most of my high school years. Her mother, a dentist, was the family's breadwinner, whereas her father, for as long as I knew him, remained a very well educated, unemployed eccentric. A tacit bookworm, his extensive private library included thirty-five beautifully bound volumes of de Maupassant Short Stories in French. Vitka's family lived in Baluty, a pretty dreadful, unsewered district of Lodz, where the Germans later on set up the Lodz Ghetto. Her mum, Mrs Ch., had an established practice there and this prevented her from ever moving house.

Vitka had magnificent green eyes set in an otherwise plain smallish face. Her large bosom made her the ideal choice for playing the biblical Eve. She was a much more diligent student than I was. Yet we were inseparable.

In the afternoons, we would spend hours on the phone chatting or listening to Radio Andorra (in the Pyrenees). This used to be our favourite station, because it played many songs of Tino Rossi, our heartthrob in those days. It was not always easy to get a good reception all the way from the Spanish border. On our lucky days one of us would ring up the other and then place the phone receiver next to her radio speaker. It was most unfortunate for anyone wishing to contact either household at such times, for our telephones remained engaged for ages.

We were also in the habit of visiting each other on alternate Sundays so that we would not miss out on the roast goose with kopytka. This was the dish that both our mothers used to prepare once a fortnight. The meal was a kind of tradition. At the end of the school day, I would often accompany Vitka to the tram stop to see her off on her trip to Baluty. Then, I returned on foot to my home nearby.

Vitka and I had a crazy habit of exchanging our schoolbags on the way to the tram stop and then forgetting all about it. This caused periodic disasters. My Mother, irate, would dispatch the maid by tram, all the way to Baluty, to fetch my schoolbooks and return Vitka's to her. Such madness caused delays with homework and even the family dinner.

Vitka believed herself to be in love with Serge, a French boy, whom she met only once on his visit to Lodz from Paris. Her infatuation with this young man persisted till the end of her short life. Until the outbreak of war they corresponded. I took it upon myself to visit Serge in Paris in 1945 to break the news to him. He remembered Vitka well and was devastated to learn of her terrible fate in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Nature did not bestow many favours upon Mara W. She was very plain, plagued by blistery skin and, for good measure, she stuttered. The latter affliction might have been a consequence of losing her father very early in life. Yet, in spite of such grave drawbacks, she stood out as one of the most generous and warm-hearted girls in our class, endowed with a tremendous sense of fun.

Her forbearance was legendary. She would laugh with us whenever we made up nasty ditties about her halting speech and a door that was catching (the Polish verb 'zacinac sie’ refers to both activities). One time, during the Polish language class, we had to write a composition entitled: 'What would I like to be when I grow up.' With tongue in cheek, Mara wrote only one sentence: 'When I grow up, I would like to be a film star.'

Mara followed her mother into the goods train at the Umschlag Platz, the Warsaw Ghetto's assembly point for transports to Treblinka.

With a Jewish father and a German mother, Lola D. probably did not quite fit the norm, but before the war no one much cared. Very pretty, in a chubby sort of way, she was best known for her ready smile and the best pair of legs in the class. The fact that she also excelled in her intellectual endeavours was born out in consistently high grades. Since we lived close to each other in Wolczanska Street, we were in the habit of popping in and out of each other's place.
One would expect that with a German mother, Lola's prospects under the Nazi rule might have been somewhat enhanced. Her fate proved otherwise. Before the signing of the German-Russian pact early in the war, the family attempted to escape the ultimate tragedy by fleeing to Lwow, where they declared themselves German to the local authorities. It didn't work: someone had denounced her father, and he was killed by the Nazis just before the Russians took over.

Back in Lodz after the liberation, the oversensitive Poles accused both mother and daughter of collaborating with the Germans. I believe her mum was detained and subsequently died. Lola escaped to Brazil. She probably still resides in Sao Paulo together with her family. We lost all contact with each other.

Hania B. was Lola's best friend at school. They sat at the same desk as long as I can remember. They generally competed with each other for the best marks. I felt a little jealous of the ease with which they learnt everything. Hania in particular didn't seem to do any homework whatsoever and always got away with it. Her solicitor father was well known for his great intelligence and leftist views. Her mum owned a private library from which we all borrowed books.

Reading meant a great deal to us in our pre-television era.
I remember many occasions, when I would say good night to Mummy, climb into bed, concealing my book with a small light fastened to it, under the doona. Then, curled up in semi-darkness, I would lose myself in my favourite novel.

During those magical moments, Rudyard Kipling let me glimpse the mysteries of India; Dumas would enthral me with the daring deeds of his knights. My awareness of human suffering and racism greatly deepened through reading books such as: Mark Twain's 'The Prince and the Pauper' or Beecher-Stowe's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.'

Hania was given to arguing with our Science and Maths teachers during lessons, and sometimes she even won the argument. The more excited she became about the matter, the closer she would move towards the teacher and the blackboard. Their exchanges were fascinating to watch, though for the uninitiated they were hard to follow.

Hania was beautiful, and she knew it well. She bewitched many boys by flapping her eyelids with long eyelashes over those large, dark, thoughtful eyes. The song 'Oczy Czarne' comes immediately to mind when I think of her.

Throughout the Koberowo summers, Hania's loving relationship with Marian F. blossomed. He was a very bright, though conceited, young man, a couple of years older than we were. At that time, we considered him to be very clever and worldly. He was in fact quite unattractive, but he possessed a certain charisma (called sex appeal in our days). He took all of our childish admiration in his stride, but he was serious only about Hania. Mr. K. watched the two of them like a hawk.

Another of our friends was Ipcia P., a member of a very well-known affluent Jewish family. The very imposing tombs of her ancestors are still gracing the Jewish cemetery in Lodz. She was pretty, highly intelligent, a good student, and she was renowned for her illegible handwriting.

Whilst Hania did not appear to do much homework, Ipcia was always doing hers in class and especially during the five minute interval between lessons. She delighted in challenging authority: In the winter, we were given to wearing a garment called 'rajtuzy'. This was a kind of outer woollen pantyhose, with an elastic fastened at the bottom to fit over our shoes. It was designed for the outdoors only. Once at school, we took it off. Ipcia loved to keep us in suspense by languidly removing her rajtuzy just as the History professor was about to enter the room.

Ipcia and her family also ended up in Treblinka.
I remember Hania Sz. as a very cute, coquettish girl with a huge bust. She excelled at school at short story writing. In 1943, after my escape from the Warsaw Ghetto, she and I often met on the Polish side, where she lived, as a Christian, with her mother and brother.

Hania Sz. is a rare survivor of the war. She used to be a journalist in Krakow, but she lives now with her husband in Warsaw. I met her there in 1977 and again in August 97.
Amongst other young people that I recall from Koberowo was Stasiek from Warsaw: a handsome, tall blonde lad. Both Marian's and his families were converted to Catholicism to help their fathers in their careers. He and Lola were very friendly. I saw him often in the Warsaw Ghetto, but I can only guess what had happened to him in the end.

There was a sister and brother team from the city of Radom: Hanka and Mietek B. They had a friend named Rysiek. All three are still among the living. Mietek used to be a dentist in Sydney. For a long time, he looked after my children's teeth for free, after their father's death. Hanka is a widow also living in Sydney. Rysiek lives in the United States.

Lilian left Poland for England before the war. I remember her as a happy natured girl. She was the one who was caught eating a banana in class. She had masses of golden locks over her forehead. She lives in New York. I stayed twice with her: once in 1973 and again in 1986.

During the time I spent at Koberowo, I slowly began to relate to boys on the teenager level. I had many 'flames', but the object of my affections usually changed at least once each summer. I best remember the bespectacled 'young Einstein' who walked me through the woods in the moonlight, talking only of Mathematics. Of course this had to be a monologue, since the subject was entirely beyond my field of knowledge or interest.

As we were walking, the wood unexpectedly opened onto a meadow, where a solitary cow stood grazing. My companion was a Jewish boy from the city, and he froze for a second in speechless terror. Then, without a thought for me, he ran away at great speed, leaving me alone with the cow. I was still too young at that time to fully realize how much I was to learn from that incident.


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