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All That Was: Chapter Twelve - The Warsaw Ghetto - Part One

“Before the year 1940 was over, the Ghetto streets were rapidly filling up with beggars in tatters. Urchins were smuggling potatoes from the Polish side in the double lining of their parkas. Bulging at the waist, they would push their merchandise through holes gouged out in the walls surrounding the Jewish enclave. On some occasions, the German Wache (guards ) would show some kindness to Jewish children by closing their eye to such activities.
Food shortages became acute. Without money, you could obtain only watery soup from the soup kitchens set up by the Judenrat. People were beginning to starve to death…’’

Lusia Przybyszewicz and her family, along with hundreds of thousands of other Polish Jews, are herded into the Warsaw Ghetto. Living conditions worsen day by day.

Lusia’s wonderfully well-written testament to survival, All That Was, can be obtained from her at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

On my return to Warsaw in the early summer of 1940 from the most wonderful interlude at Srodborow, I became immediately confronted by the stark reality all over again.

Even as early as November 1939, we all knew that the Germans had The Warsaw Ghetto on their hidden agenda: it was slowly taking shape.

Busy as we were at all times struggling with the increasing daily crises, we did not pay enough attention to the events likely to affect our lives in the near future. Officially, the existence of the Ghetto was announced only in October, on Yom Kippur. Yet already in the spring 1940 many of us could predict that we would eventually have to move there.

The German propaganda machine was convincing the Polish population in the capital that, because the dirty Jews were spreading disease, they needed to be isolated at the earliest possible time. Evil billboards portending the slur appeared in the streets of Warsaw (as if the Poles really needed any such prompting!). Plans began at once to relocate more than 400,000 Jews into an area two-and-a-half-miles long by one mile wide. Only 160,000 people were living there in normal times.

The sector designated by the Hun for the Ghetto covered mainly the poor Jewish quarter of the city. This arrangement enabled many local Jewish families to stay put. Conversely the wealthy Warsaw Jews living in the fashionable districts, refugees like ourselves from other Polish cities as well as Jews from other European countries, especially from Germany, had to relocate.

Unfortunately for us, Dluga Street was outside the boundaries of the Ghetto. With an enormous effort, Natka and Adolf succeeded in exchanging their cosy, well-appointed little flat with that of a destitute Catholic who, for some strange reason, lived in the poor Jewish district. This inferior 'equivalent' in Novolipki Street was situated almost next door to aunt Lipcia's fiat. There is no question that many Poles benefited greatly from similar exchanges.

Aunt Gucia, uncle Pavilon, and Bronia were able to stay at 18 Franciszkanska Street, as did aunt Regina's family, at Novolipie Street. Mercifully, Babcia Fragman died of natural causes before the outbreak of war. By then she was in her eighties.
The area of the Ghetto was surrounded by high brick walls, secured at the top by broken glass or barbed wire. At the outset, there were about 20 gates. They were patrolled by uniformed armed Germans, who were generally of Ukrainian extraction and known for their brutality and hatred of the Jews, and by Polish policemen in blue uniforms. Before the end of 1940, the pickets were joined by members of the Jewish police (Ordnungsdienst), who were recruited by the Judenrat, the Jewish Council, itself appointed by the Germans to oversee the carrying out of the German directives within the Ghetto.
Any meagre supplies to the Ghetto of whatever kind had to pass through those gates.

I believe we moved house about June or July 1940. I still recall Adolf and Natka's anxiety and apprehension at having to abandon their precious little home. My own family learned to view such situations more philosophically. My parents felt we had 'to be thankful for small mercies' since this time round we were at least allowed to take our belongings with us. The greatest challenge came when we tried to shift them without any public transport facilities available.

Streets were teeming with Jewish families on the move. We were all relocating more or less at the same time. The furniture from Dluga Street, with all our prized possessions, had to be hauled to our new address by means of a handcart which each of us in turn had to help push along the roadway.

Our new abode had a toilet but no bathroom. The six of us made the best possible use of the available space. It consisted of two rooms and the kitchen. Beds were to be seen everywhere. Some were folded up during the day. Mine was relegated to the kitchen.

By the time we joined the throngs of displaced, often dispossessed, very frightened people, many, many thousands were already living in the Ghetto. They were poor already prior to the war, and they were by now reaching starvation levels. With the overcrowding and the resulting inadequate hygiene, a most severe epidemic of typhus began to spread as early as March 1940.

At first, the real horror of our new situation did not become apparent to us. My parents obviously still had a reserve of jewellery they managed to smuggle in from Lodz. But, to the very end, such matters were not discussed with the children. My parents must have been slowly exchanging the jewellery on the black market for food items and the like. Also until the end of November 1940 it was still possible to walk in and out of the Ghetto without too much difficulty. After that time the area became sealed. Only people with a special Ausweiss, Jews and non-Jews alike, were permitted to enter or leave via the gates.

Warsaw trams continued on their normal routes, with the proviso that they did not stop within the walled area of the Ghetto. Through the closed windows of their carriages, we could see the gentiles travelling along the roads. Likewise, from above, the gentiles in the carriages were able to view the multitudes of Jews bustling hither and thither like so many ants along the streets. Their right forearms uniformly displayed their white armbands with the blue Star of David. Humiliation was the principle weapon used by the Nazis to break the Jewish spirit; this set-up was one shining example of the practice.

Not to be outdone, the Jews soon produced three-wheeled bicycle rickshaws to supplement the one tram which circulated for a while only within the Ghetto. Even the tram bore the Star of David. Over time, two horse-driven diligence-like carriages eased the transportation problems a little. The carriages were called 'Kohn and Heller': named after the two rather notorious Lodz Jews who initiated the service. They acted possibly with the approval of the Gestapo to which they were supposedly linked.

After we settled into our new home, we went ahead with normalizing our every day life as best we could. Within our block of flats, my father was elected by the majority of tenants, to be the chief arbiter for the members of the community who often squabbled under the enormous pressure.
For a while, a kind of kindergarten was also established to cater for all the little children on the block. Young people of my age group were drafted into the service of the kindergarten. We played all sorts of games with the little ones, usually in the courtyard. Very occasionally, before the Ghetto became sealed, we took them for short excursions outside the walls.

Thankfully, I can also recount some humorous moments from that period, such as my mediocre attempts at coaching the older children in the basics.
I do not know what possessed me when I took it upon myself to teach Arithmetic and Hebrew to two brothers named Hilus (Hillel) and Mendus (Mendel), my 'star' pupils in the neighbourhood. A possible explanation might be that desperate times call for desperate measures. In fact, my competence in both subjects was practically nil.

In Maths, throughout my primary school years, two particular types of problems invariably sent my mind into a spin. One concerned two different quantities of tea, each at a different price per kilo that were mixed together. One had to calculate the cost of three decagrams of the mixture. The other problem concerned two cars set off at a given time, from points A and B respectively, travelling at different speeds towards each other; one had to work out when and where they met.

I tried very hard to work those puzzles out for the boys, but generally their uneducated father, who like the whole family spoke mainly Yiddish, came to the rescue. As for the Hebrew, I used to prepare one lesson ahead of them.

Many, many years later, as a school teacher in Australia, I applied a similar technique in cases of emergency - be it when tutoring a single student in Senior Physics or teaching first year German to a whole class of youngsters.

During that year in the Ghetto, I was exposed for the first time in my life to the curious blend of Polish and Yiddish spoken around me. I realized how much the very intricacies of the Polish language might have contributed to the alienation of the traditional Polish Jews. Given that the anti-Semitism was endemic to the national culture, they were not strongly motivated to learn it in the first place; moreover, for a variety of reasons, they were not given the opportunity to do so.
The Polish language itself is rather difficult. The verb endings are different for each person in each tense. In addition, prefixes can determine the tense as well. The nouns are in three genders. Together with their qualifying adjectives, they belong to several declensions, and their endings are determined in each case (as in Latin) by the preposition that precedes them.

The majority of poor uneducated Polish Jews took no account whatsoever of those essential variations in the language. They would generally answer a question with the same endings on their verbs and nouns as the question was put. To compound the problem, they would utter their Polish in a totally inappropriate Yiddish singsong fashion. Those linguistic shortcomings made the Poles laugh mockingly, but there was also an underlying fury that the Jews dared to so distort the national tongue.

'Zyd' means Jew. The verb the Poles used to describe the way Zyd spoke was 'zydlaczyc': an ultimate insult. In the beginning, when I first arrived at Novolipki Street, my Polish upbringing and schooling caused this affront to the Polish syntax to make me cringe. The impossible constructions, coupled with the persistent habit of answering a question with another question, jarred a little at first.

I remember my pupils' mother hanging out of an upper floor window, repeatedly calling her sons to come up from the courtyard for a meal. Usually, her calls went unheeded.
'Why aren't you coming up?', she would call. Typically, the response would be: 'Why do I have to?' Or, worse still, they would reply: 'Nie chce.' (I don't want to.) In all the courtyards throughout the cramped Jewish quarter, such exchanges, bellowed at the top of one's lungs, went on all day long, every day.

Gradually though, Yiddish began to prevail, at least in the streets. I never learned to speak it fluently nor did I like its sound, but I grew to love the extraordinary aptness of expression. The tragic humour became an integral part of the language, especially in the way it was capable of exuding both great humanity and a desperate wit in the face of a mortal threat.

An inherent strength existed in the Warsaw Ghetto Yiddish that helped to keep the spirit up. I do not believe it could ever be adequately translated into any other language.
I knew that this Varshever Yiddish, with much bad Polish thrown in, was the most vulgar version of the language. My father spoke the Litvaker (Lithuanian) Yiddish, a more literary version.

Ever since our move to Novolipki, my dad spent many daylight hours by the window, reading thick volumes of Sholem Aleichem in Yiddish. He would sometimes translate to us a little tale of Jewish suffering. Not unlike in 'The Fiddler on the Roof’, the setting was usually a God-forsaken Russian village. The three main characters who predominated were husband, wife, and the milkman. Just like Chagal in his paintings, the celebrated Jewish writer captured fully the misery and abject poverty of their existence.

Father had slowly recovered his composure in the Ghetto. In addition to his duties of arbiter in the larger community, he also helped Mother in the very difficult task of keeping the household going, regardless.

From the very beginning we had the unenviable task of fighting the bedbug infestation. I can clearly see my father on the ladder, equipped with a little basin and a scraper, scour the stretch under the strips of old wallpaper often used in those days as a decorative border for the paintwork on the walls. The pests' nests were mostly in such places. Having regained his sense of humour, Father would frequently interrupt his task up there, by issuing communiques of his progress, such as: 'The enemy is still showing some resistance on the Western front. Or, 'The enemy has been crushed and is presently in retreat.' And so forth.

His other pastime was playing cards with a new friend and neighbour, a Mr Zylbersztajn. This gentleman spoke only Yiddish, and to this day I remember the words he spoke every time he was dealt a bad hand: 'Is siojn geweisen git, fa wus is siojn wieder asoj slecht?' (It was already good; why is it again so bad?) Given our situation, his words had of course a very much wider application.

Natka and Adolf lost their shop about that time because this particular section of Nalewki Street became also excluded from the Ghetto area. Like many others, they found little to do with their time.

As always, and in accordance with the general consensus in the Ghetto, the wellbeing and the future of the children remained our parents' priority. Our schooling could not be allowed to be neglected for much longer.

On principle, the Nazis forbade the Jews to have schools. Inevitably, their decrees drove the Judenrat to look for ways of circumventing the prohibition. By means of various subterfuges it managed to promote education in spite of such intolerable conditions. Slowly, clandestine schools were established in people's overcrowded flats. Tremendous effort was required to develop smoothly running courses.
Gradually, the numerous Lodz exiles were reunited in the Warsaw Ghetto. I met up with Vitka, Mara, Ipcia, Erna, and Jasia and their families. Jasia's future husband, with his mother and many other girls from Orzeszkowa, also lived in the compound, as did our former teacher of Polish, Mrs. L.
It took a little time for small groups of prospective students to be formed. To study for the Matura several teachers from amongst the locals had to be co-opted; they used to teach in the Warsaw High Schools, but as Jews they were now confined to the Ghetto. Before long our clandestine school was up and running. Those willing and financially capable of so doing, were at last given another chance to resume their interrupted studies in all the core subjects. For security reasons, our classes were held daily at different addresses.

At that juncture we still felt reasonably safe, because the Germans' pathological fear of disease caused them to avoid entering our so-called Seuchensperregebiet (Quarantine Area). They mostly relied on their Polish stooges and on the Judenrat to have their orders implemented.

I studied really hard then, probably for the first time in my life! I felt urged on by an enormous sense of purpose, and soon discovered that by applying myself to the task I could do pretty well.

We had a set of brilliant teachers to inspire us. I remember doing lots of Latin, translating the texts of the famous Roman historian Tacitus, studying the French Romantics with much depth, absorbing the first year university level Philosophy, and acquiring a special passion for History. The History course was taught by a virtuoso in his field. With him, we lived through the rise and fall of both Ancient Greece and Rome, the French Revolution, and the Crimean Wars.

I also did the best I could with my Maths and Science. Our studies continued well into 1941, possibly even into 1942. I remember staying awake nights in my kitchen, till the early hours of the morning, to prepare for my final exams. I sustained myself by sipping ersatz coffee. The exams were held under strict conditions within the Ghetto. I did quite well on the whole. All of the exam results were communicated to the clandestine school authorities on the Polish side.
I received my Matura certificate only after the end of the war. My friend, Hania B. sent it to me from Warsaw to Frensham, Mittagong, where I was a teacher of French in the late 1940s. Hania's father became the Minister of Finance in the first post-war Polish Government. Hence, he was able to cut through the red tape.

Bolek was now 11 years old. He also followed a course of study suited to his level in the Ghetto. Many groups were under the auspices of the Judenrat, though not officially so. We were the lucky ones in that our parents could afford our schooling. The majority of Ghetto children were not so fortunate.

Before we knew it, winter set in. This was our first winter of complete isolation from the rest of the world. Compared to the next winter, this one could be considered tolerable. We were still clothed, fed, and, in general, slightly less fearful of the future. This entirely false sense of security we felt was due to the German perfidy to which I alluded in the preamble to Chapter 11. The Germans never let on ahead of time what they held in store for us. Our degradation came slowly, by degrees.
Before the year 1940 was over, the Ghetto streets were rapidly filling up with beggars in tatters. Urchins were smuggling potatoes from the Polish side in the double lining of their parkas. Bulging at the waist, they would push their merchandise through holes gouged out in the walls surrounding the Jewish enclave. On some occasions, the German Wache (guards ) would show some kindness to Jewish children by closing their eye to such activities.

Food shortages became acute. Without money, you could obtain only watery soup from the soup kitchens set up by the Judenrat. People were beginning to starve to death.
My mother spent all her energies and resourcefulness on devising elaborate schemes that in the end would yield the unobtainable food supplies. The black market was the only way to go. The rationed black bread contained flour mixed with sand, so that one kilo loaf weighed almost two kilos.
I remember how one day, my other overheard an exchange while she was out shopping. 'Oh, you are eating white bread, fancy that!' said one envious housewife to another. The other replied: 'If you had on your tongue what my husband has on his duodenum, you would also eat white bread.'
On the 25th December, 1940, we celebrated our parents' wedding anniversary after a fashion. In better days this was the 'event of the year'.

I also recollect the Silvester Night (New Year's Eve) that I spent with a group of my friends. For this occasion, Mother unearthed a length of navy blue material, which was waiting to be made into a new Orzeszkowa school uniform. Statio, who was a student of chemical engineering, was operating a small dyeing enterprise in the Ghetto. He dyed the material black, and then Mother had it made into a party dress for me. There were many boys at that party whom I did not know. I distinctly remember feeling very lost and envying those girls who were having a fabulous time.


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