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All That Was: Chapter Thirteen - Warsaw Ghetto - Part Two

“The most shattering street scene I witnessed in the course of winter 1941 was that of a mother and child, both flat on their stomachs, voraciously licking the pavement upon which they accidentally spilled their precious soup. It was probably their only daily ration from a welfare kitchen.

Another heart-wrenching street scene that my friend S. (more about her later) remembered best from that period in the Ghetto was that of a man who had died in a gutter; the moment he expired, he was stripped of all his clothes right there in the street…’’

Lusia Przybyszewicz’s eyewitness account of what life was like for the many thousands of Jewish people imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis in World War Two makes for harrowing reading.

But Lusia’s words should be read and re-read, and never forgotten. Civilised societies are fragile creations. They need to be defended by alert citizens who are aware of the horrors of history.

Lusia’s marvellously well-written book, All That Was, is available from PO 404, Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Austrlian plus postage).

1941 was a very long year. It progressed ever so slowly from bad to worse. Except for the corrupt, criminal element which grew in prominence with every passing day, the awesome plight of the majority of the Ghetto population was becoming very clear.

In most streets, the pavements were littered with the dirty bedding of entire homeless, starving families, who just lay there. Some of them were still able to beg for mercy; others, who had already failed their ultimate endurance test, were slowly fading away.

Myriads of dying infants were everywhere. They were often practically naked, with dilated stomachs, and huge eyes staring in a final fit of despair. Numerous peddlers who had not as yet exhausted all of their energy, were left standing in the shelter of buildings in a feeble attempt to sell some small items. They would offer shoelaces, combs, home-made lollies, and the like, plaintively pleading in Yiddish with the passers-by to give them a chance.

I particularly remember a well-spoken middle aged man who usually roamed at the corner of Karmelicka and Leszno. He was wrapped only in a doona over his naked body. He was calling out in Polish for everyone to hear that he had once owned a radio factory ('mialem fabryke radio- aparatow').

At some stage, power in the Ghetto was cut off, and most evening activities, such as they were, had to proceed in the light of carbide lamps. The stuff stank. Water was also in short supply. This shortage was aggravated by the traditional freezing and cracking of water pipes in the winter. Soap was very hard to come by. Throughout that winter typhus raged in the Ghetto. It claimed thousands of victims. Lice became the greatest curse.

As the food grew very scarce, new recipes appeared on our menus. There was a dish called ‘liver without liver'. This consisted of sliced cucumbers rolled in flour and fried (if fat could be acquired!) They smelled exactly like the real thing. We used carrots for juice, jam, and cake-making.

Horse blood was administered to the sick and the young.

I believe that, on the whole, the very Orthodox, even though they were officially allowed to celebrate Rosh Hashana (Roshe Shune), Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover (Pejsach), and Shavuot, were nevertheless forced to abandon the demands of the Kashrut by the end of that year. There were few problems with kosher meat as none was available to the poor.

The most shattering street scene I witnessed in the course of winter 1941 was that of a mother and child, both flat on their stomachs, voraciously licking the pavement upon which they accidentally spilled their precious soup. It was probably their only daily ration from a welfare kitchen.

Another heart-wrenching street scene that my friend S. (more about her later) remembered best from that period in the Ghetto was that of a man who had died in a gutter; the moment he expired, he was stripped of all his clothes right there in the street.

We had a small bakery in our courtyard. It worked at a very much-reduced capacity. Every Friday afternoon we became accustomed to follow the ancient tradition of taking our earthenware pot of cholent there. It cooked slowly in the oven that was still hot from the, by then, extinguished fire. It thus provided us with a warm meal on Shabbat.

The very poor would rummage through garbage bins in search of potato peelings with which they made soup. Someone had hidden a real cow in a small shed in our courtyard. The precious animal was hand-fed, and it provided those who could pay with a little fresh milk.

The inhuman, intolerable hardships we all had to withstand on a daily basis took their toll in our home as well. My mother, once our tower of strength, very gradually succumbed to a sort of weariness that hardly ever left her. Her hair turned white. She lost a lot of weight. We all tried to help her with the daily tasks as much as we could. I learned to cook and often managed to relieve her of that burden. But I was able to do so largely due to the fact that over time the menu choices became practically nil.

She did not quite trust me, and she would often lie on my bed in the kitchen, giving me instructions and closely watching over my limited culinary skills.

That was the time I was introduced to the secrets of making kopytka-gnocchi (though without the roast goose), kapusniak (cabbage soup), potato latkes, etc. Bolek was rapidly developing merchandising talents, and he often landed some real bargain for the table.

At one time there was also a cooking course on offer in Novolipki Street, not far from our block, probably under the auspices of the Judenrat. As I anticipated, Mother enrolled me in it. I still enjoy making a salad of grated apples and carrots learned at that school.

On our graduation day all the students served a light meal to the public. We were all neatly dressed for our waitressing role. Mother followed me from table to table helping me give the correct change to the customers.

By the end of 1940 Natka was growing listless. She showed some early signs of mental disorder. She sat for hours on end at the dining room table, with her bare hand constantly wiping away some imaginary dust from its polished top.

We spent the chilly winter evenings together in our little flat in semi-darkness. Often, our neighbours would drop in. Amongst them, I especially recall a very handsome, beguiling young man, Olek. He was probably in his twenties. I found him very attractive. He belonged to a squad of Jewish labourers taken out every morning by truckloads through the Ghetto gates to work on the Polish side during the day. They were brought back at nightfall. Through his eyes we learned a little about the goings-on beyond the walls.

He described how the increasingly rapacious Germans were removing most of the iron fences from the public parks, with the objective of melting them down to produce armaments.

Occasionally, Olek managed to smuggle in something of use or bring some pertinent news from the outside world. He was the first to tell us of the rumours about busloads of Jews from small villages being killed with gas. The idea was too preposterous for anyone to even contemplate. He also spoke of the Nazi practice of extracting and melting down the fat from Jewish bodies for the production of soap. He told us a gruesome joke about two Jewish friends who farewelled each other, promising to meet again one day as cakes of soap on a shelf.

He would often half-jokingly say, 'Don't you ever forget that all of us here assembled are in fact already dead.' We tried to laugh.

My feet felt so cold each night that I had to soak them in a basin of hot water before going to bed.

I spent as much time as possible with my old school friends. Throughout 1941, our friendship strengthened and also embraced all the members of everyone's family. I loved and admired Jasia's babcia, Mrs. Orfinger. Until she died from typhus, she showed so much courage and determination that she often made the rest of us feel like wimps. Jasia's aunt Marysia was also there. We had no idea at that time that fate would one day bring us together in London.

On the lighter note, I remember the day Mara's grandpa was expected to pass a motion containing a dental gold filing which he had accidentally swallowed the night before. In the hope of retrieving it, we spent some hilarious moments keeping vigil outside their toilet, with a poker at the ready.

In spite of - or because of - what was happening all around us, the indomitable Jewish humour prevailed. Someone gave a graphic description of his room, by declaring that within it a tiny dog could only wag its tail up and down but not sideways.

A story of two housewives also made the rounds. Both made their respective chicken broth at the same time, in the same kitchen, on the same stove. Consequently, each cook felt compelled to carefully count the fat droplets floating on the surface, just to make sure none would end up in her rival's pot.

I often visited Erna's household. One of her aunts was troubled by a kidney problem. To keep warm, she always had her back wrapped up in a blanket folded into four and secured at the belly button level by an enormous safety pin. In that strange attire she would answer the doorbell whenever someone called in.

Vitka's place at Leszno Street was larger than most, because her mother used one room for her dental surgery. I whiled away many happy hours there. We squeezed like sardines on the sofa behind a screen and listened to some English or American gramophone records. We played them ever so slowly and repeatedly, and we wrote down with Polish spellings the words we did not comprehend. Then, we sang them along with the music. We particularly enjoyed old classics like: 'Stormy Weather', 'Let's Face The Music and Dance', 'Thanks For The Memory', etc.

In a more serious vein, we enjoyed reading French poetry aloud, especially that of Verlaine and Musset.

For a time, we were still able to correspond with Lola D. She eventually finished up in Lvov, with her mother, because the Russians remained at peace with Germany until July 41. The Russians entered Poland from the East on 17th September 1939 to reach the river Bug line. On 22nd June 1941, Hitler attacked Russia.

Lola D. was in love then with a boy from Lodz (Mucha W.). She wrote many pages about him, often quoting entire French poems. I still remember by heart her favourite Musset sonnet: 'II faut dans ce bas monde aimer beaucoup de choses...'

In the midst of the Ghetto hell our cultural life was rich and diverse. We boasted several Polish and Yiddish theatre casts, reviews, innumerable street bands, and a splendid symphonic orchestra. We often attended concerts in a large hall-cum-restaurant of sorts in Leszno Street. The public sat at tables all around and the musicians took center stage.

On one memorable occasion, a seven year old virtuoso girl - a pianist from Vienna -played Mozart's Piano concerto in B Flat Major with the orchestra. This gripping experience left most of us in tears. Whenever I hear it, I can still see that tiny figure seated at the grand piano, creating magical sounds.

We once saw a particular vaudeville show in the same hall. Some local well-known crooners gave a rendition of pre-war hits. The words of one song began with the girl singing: 'I adore speeding in the car and he adores me...!'('Ja, szalenie lubie gdy auto szybko mknie, a on, szalenie lubi mnie’)

As the year progressed, the typhus epidemic claimed more and more victims. The lice plague was horrendous. You literally could not walk in the streets or travel in the forever overcrowded Kohn and Heller contraption, without collecting lice on your clothing.

'Don't worry about them,' I heard one man say with attempted humour. 'They are only motorised dandruff.’

By that time the poor and the dying were lying on the pavements on makeshift beds, covered with lice. They gave the impression of being in perpetual motion.

Desperate families often turned the very sick out into the streets to save their already dilapidated lodgings from being subjected to very rough delousing procedures. These procedures were generally carried out by corrupt Jewish police or anti-Semitic Polish sanitary squads. Both of these groups would frequently resort to blackmail in order to steal people's precious possessions.

Every morning, heaps of corpses littered the streets. Children's bodies lay in their own frozen urine. The Judenrat had set up appropriate cleaning teams equipped with sturdy handcarts. These teams collected the corpses each morning and lugged them on their final journey to the Jewish cemetery. There, the dead bodies were dumped into mass graves one on top of the other.

I never saw the cemetery, but we all knew it was just outside of the Ghetto walls at Okopowa Street. Since one could reach it only through one of the gates, no Jew could attend a funeral of his loved ones, without the special Ausweiss. In those circumstances, no one except the immediate family dared to expose themselves to danger by attending the burial.

We heard terrible stories about that cemetery: the Poles and the Jewish police disturbed the graves in their search for gold filings. The Nazis considered Jewish funerals to be a tourist attraction and usually flocked in equipped with their cameras.

Eventually delousing stations were set up throughout the Ghetto. Here, one had to strip, submit to examination, have one's hair cut short or cut off before being sprayed with a stinging, smelly disinfectant. It was a most humiliating and terrifying ordeal. To compound it, we had to queue sometimes for hours in the cold for this rare privilege.

The danger of inadvertently harbouring the disease-carrying lice on one's person was so great, that every time we returned home from an errand, each of us took off the outer clothing on the staircase and shook every garment vigorously. We then examined each other for any stray louse and removed our shoes before actually crossing the threshold.

In spite of such precautions, my mother's family, deprived for so long of decent nourishment, was soon decimated by the typhus epidemic. I am unable to say in which order Gucia, Pavilon, Regina and family, and Lipcia and family died. I remember the attempts to save Lipcia's life by applying leeches behind her ears to reduce blood pressure.

My cousin, Bronia, who moved in with us after her parents' death, also fell ill. She received blood transfusions from Adolf and survived, but only for the time being.

Natka became quite mad and had to be hospitalized. She was diagnosed with an inoperable malignant tumour on the brain. Her protracted illness was accentuated by intermittent bouts of internal bleeding. Given the restricted access to the hospital I managed only a few agonizing moments by her bed. She was unrecognizable. Against enormous odds, the hospital itself was in excellent order - spotless and blessed with a wonderfully devoted nursing staff.

I have a very accurate recollection of walking home after one of my rare visits to the hospital. I was accompanied by my aunt's specialist. With such an escort, I was allowed to break the curfew. It was a beautiful, starry night. The brightness of the night highlighted the white snow-coated footpath. At that late hour, the streets were almost deserted and silence (generally non existent in the Ghetto) reigned!

I found the youngish doctor to be very committed and extraordinarily sensitive. It was obvious that, to him, saving one human life was of paramount importance in any circumstances.

From my very early teens, I passionately hoped to become a doctor one day. I therefore found in this man my childhood dreams come true. We had a long exhaustive talk that night about destiny. To me, all seemed bleak with nothing but pain around everywhere. Yet he held this quite extraordinary conviction that nothing ever happens in vain: that ultimately, in the wake of a catastrophe, there emerges a new dawn. That discussion left me very stirred for a long time. In my mind he has forever remained a very special human being and the ideal doctor.

We were deeply affected by Natka's ordeal and dreaded the thought of having to lose her. The young and the old alike loved and respected her. Yet, when she passed away, instead of being allowed some breathing space in which to mourn her, we were confronted constantly in the coming days and weeks with new fatalities.

As I am now reliving these years of doom, it seems that within our own clan burials occurred at least once a week. Only the next of kin attended the funeral on each occasion. We, the children, were never encouraged to participate.

There was a courthouse in Leszno Street right on the border with the Christian part of Warsaw. Through this courthouse, one could gain entry to the Ghetto and to the Polish side. The sight was well known to most of us, but very few Jews were game enough to breach the Nazi decree. Leaving our prescribed area was considered unlawful and punishable by death. The Poles used the building for trafficking and food smuggling.

As the situation worsened within the Ghetto walls, some desperate inmates managed to bribe the Polish cops who were usually about. The inmates could then go unmolested through the Courthouse on to the Polish side. On the whole the manoeuvre proved unwise. If the victims were recognized, the Poles would pass the information on to their mates and thus perpetuate their blackmail of the unsuspecting Jews.

I had a firsthand experience of their guile at the end of 1942 and in 1943 while I was trying to survive on the Polish side.

In the spring and summer between the two winters of 1941 I summoned enough courage to make a few high-risk sorties via the Courthouse. I was accompanied by a Warsaw-bred Jewish girlfriend, Lili. She also appeared blessed with Christian features.

The stakes were high. Our objective was to purchase anti-typhus vaccine. It was unobtainable without contacts within the Ghetto. Lily had some useful connections on the Arian side because of the property her family owned in the centre of the capital. She also knew a very trustworthy concierge who was devoted to the family. I had only the address of my aunt Bela who still lived in hiding with her son, Stefanek, on the Polish side.

By this time, both Bolek and I held great fears for the health of our parents. We felt determined that they should at least be vaccinated against this worst killer, even though it was by no means the only killer.

Lili and I walked into the courthouse as unobtrusively as possible, happily chatting all the while. We then stopped for a few minutes in the Ladies, first of all to remove and conceal the white arm bands with the Star of David, in our underwear Then, equally importantly, we peered about to make sure we were not being followed. Eventually, we emerged, heading slowly in a very relaxed manner in the direction of the Polish side exit. All the while we were laughing and blubbering something about boyfriends and parties. It was an absolutely nerve-shattering exercise. Thankfully, it worked well for us every time we used it.

A flea market was located very near the Arian side exit. There, we would pause for a while and savour the relative freedom and normality of life which the Poles enjoyed. We picked up an item from the stalls here and there, asked the price, examined the quality, just to have a little taste of what it felt like to be an ordinary human being again. These interludes served us well as a confidence boosting exercise.

Eventually, we made our way to Lili's concierge for a bite to eat. Finally, we ended up at the flat of uncle Ludwik's Christian friends at Bracka Street. These friends had offered temporary shelter to my aunt Bela and cousin Stefanek.

At first, my relatives expected a visa any day from the Rumanian Embassy. This would allow them to leave Poland for Bucharest. Ludwik, who had been drafted in September 1939 as an officer in the Medical Corps, arrived there with the remains of the Polish army, led by Gen. Smigly-Rydz, soon after defeat.

My uncle's wealthy Rumanian patient, whose life he helped to save, had some useful connections. This man offered to procure the indispensable passport to freedom for my uncle's beloved family.

During this time, Hitler became worried about the flirtations of the Soviets with the Rumanian State which owned vast oil fields. Hitler feared that the oil would fall into Russian hands, and he made all sorts of false promises to Bucharest. These negotiations resulted in the German forces being allowed into Rumania. Hitler eventually used Rumania as a launching platform from which to invade the Balkan states and Greece via Bulgaria.

In about February 1941, just as Ludwik was about to be issued with the visa for Bela and the boy, the Germans cancelled it. All contact with Ludwik ceased.

In the end, Bela became our chief supplier of the anti-typhus vaccine. The transactions were very, very protracted even on the Polish side. The vaccines had to be smuggled in from abroad and were therefore both scarce and pretty expensive.

In due course, we returned to the Ghetto via the same channels, with the same terrible misgivings as before. We had to put our arm bands on again in the Courthouse toilet.

Until each of us received the required three injections, my parents were totally unaware of how the vaccines were really acquired. On learning the truth about my forays beyond the walls, they were astounded.

On one of these trips, Lili and I felt so confident and daring that we actually ventured into an elegant Polish cafe. It was probably in Aleje Jerozolimskie where a Chamber Orchestra was giving a concert to a mostly German audience. Members of the Gestapo, the SS, and the Wehrmacht were seated around at the tables. They had removed their military caps, and they were listening to the music with astonishing abandon. It seemed inconceivable that those were members of the same regime of sadistic murderers we knew from the Ghetto.

Later on, in Germany, I observed the same amazing transformation. I witnessed the same kind of 'softening' in the generally icy-cold eyes of the uniformed Germans, whenever they would fondle a dog.

The wonderful music I heard there and which I knew so well, touched my soul. It brought back my ever-present longing for the old times in Lodz when I attended symphonic concerts with my father. On our return to the Ghetto such indulgence seemed ill-placed, when any warm feelings instantly gave way to anxiety and extreme sadness.

After July 1941, some more Lodz school friends began filtering through from under the hitherto Russian occupation. One day, Marylka R. appeared in the Ghetto together with her mum. I had learned of her arrival before the others did and I invited all my friends to our flat, without telling them the good news. To surprise them, Marylka dressed like a charwoman and walked into the room with a bucket and mop.
This was of course an unheard-of occupation in the Ghetto setting. We were seated around our dining room table. The girls took some time before they realized who she was.

'Marylka!' they screamed, and there were hugs all round.

Lucjan Kober always brought good cheer with him on his frequent visits to the Ghetto. His main purpose was to bring helpful messages from the outside world. He lived on the Polish side, at Zoliborz, with his wife, a converted Jew, and with his daughter Alusia, who, like my bosom friend Vitka, secretly studied medicine. Luckily for her, the academic work proceeded under more relaxed conditions on the Christian side.

Vitka had many more hurdles to overcome, because the course she endeavoured to follow was given under Ghetto conditions. We had several fine medical and science experts on the spot. Some, like Professor Hirszfeld, Dr Korczak, and others were converts who had been forced by the Nazis to return to the fold.

They all made a tremendous contribution to education and research in the Ghetto. Their main areas of exploration were the effects of starvation on humans, for which there were endless specimens at hand. However, the faculty where the studies were held, under the disguise of sanitary services, was directly outside of the Ghetto gate, just like the Jewish cemetery. It was located at the corner of Leszno and Zelazna. Some of the students who were attempting to reach their classes, were on occasions subjected to beating or even rape.

Still, indomitable humour relevant to the times often prevailed. There was a busy intersection at the corner of Chlodna and Zelazna with an overpass above Zelazna for the Polish pedestrians. Down below, the Jews had to enter through the gate at Chlodna. The German Wache at that point was renown for hitting Jews on the head with a wooden baton, if the object of their loathing did not take off his hat quickly enough. There was a special greeting one offered to wish someone ill: 'May the hat stick on to your head at the corner of Chlodna and Zelazna.'

The converts had a church in the Ghetto, and many in fact sought solace there. They generally felt in conflict with the rest of the community, and, in a way, they considered themselves to be superior. Malicious jokes circulated within the Ghetto on this subject as well. After the Nazis ordered all of those within the congregation who had Jewish mothers, grandmothers, or great grandmothers to leave, no one was left in the church. Then, Jesus came off the altar and called out to the Virgin Mary: 'Come on Mother, let's go.' (Kim mamysi, kim)

Adolf Brauner kept in touch with us as long as he could. He himself had much difficulty safeguarding his Jewish wife and little Gerhard. He eventually became very bold by applying for an Ausweiss for himself to go to the country for health reasons, and then, by simply writing in the names of his wife and child. Miraculously, he got away with it; his family survived.

Before the year was out, one day, to our utter amazement, we received a telephone bill to be paid. It referred to the last quarter of the year 1939 at our flat in Lodz. What better proof of the German Tuchtigkeit (efficiency) could there be?

News also reached us via Adolf Brauner, I suppose, that Japan had attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December 1941. He said, that when the news broke, two high-ranking German officers were having light refreshments at the Lodz Grand Hotel Cafe (which I used to visit with my Father). The officers realized the new threat to the Reich caused by America's involvement in the war. 'We have lost the war!' one of them exclaimed. The other officer pulled out his revolver and shot his comrade dead.

Because we were locked away in the Ghetto, most of us were totally ignorant of the Tripartite Pact signed by the two Axis Powers and Japan on 27th September 1940. Hitler's hopes that Japan would keep the U.S.A. at bay and also help to destroy the Soviet Union came to naught, when it signed instead a Pact of Neutrality with the Russians on 13th April, ’41. Japan thus was free itself for the debacles of its choice in Asia.

On the 25th of December, 1941, we celebrated our parents' wedding anniversary. Little did we know then, that we were celebrating this occasion for the last time. Bolek and I scraped together all the zloty we earned in various ways and managed to buy some bread rolls and frankfurts on the black market.

At such a time, it was a real feast.

Our joy was short lived. Soon things were to go from bad to worse. Disease had plagued us and killed many of us, but in the months to come the main threat to life was to become intentional slaughter.

My life turned into a terrifying nightmare in which the only thing that counted was minute-to-minute survival.


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