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All That Was: Chapter Eleven - Warsaw, Here I Come

“I discovered a curious characteristic about myself, of which until that time I was absolutely unaware. Friends astounded me with the notion that I had an Arian looking face! For a Jew in Poland in 1940 such words proffered the greatest compliment to which one could aspire: it was a colossal advantage!
I am immediately reminded of a joke that appeared in the form of an advertisement shortly before the war in a satirical revue, Szpilki-Pins a publication not unlike the English 'Punch': 'Will exchange a motorbike in good order for an Arian grandmother'.
I could not bring myself to believe my good fortune at first, but I felt nevertheless tempted to try it out. My early experiments proved encouraging. As the time went on, my face became my greatest asset; ultimately, it was of an immense help to my survival…’’

Lusia Przybyszewicz and her family are now in Warsaw, where the Nazis are about to launch the horrors which involved the incarceration of Jewish people in the Ghetto.

Lusia’s wonderfully well-written autobiography, All That Was, can be obtained by writing to her at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia (price $25 Austrlaian, plus postage).

Any attempt at portraying the slow agony of our incarceration in the Warsaw Ghetto calls for a preamble.

As I write my story, we were witnessing the horrors of Rwanda as well as the continuing struggle in Bosnia. The Chinese Cultural Revolution is still fresh in our memories. So are all of the horrors that happened before it: the starving of the Somalis, the abhorrent consequences of the vicious South African Apartheid laws, the virtual annihilation of the once independent Tibet. These are but a few examples.

It is easy to reach the inevitable conclusion that human suffering on this planet knows no bounds. It would, of course, be utterly absurd to try to list in some kind of order of priority all of the atrocities that various perpetrators have committed against their fellow humans. The distinguishing feature of each instance might perhaps be the scale of operations or the degree of cruelty in the methods chosen to kill the innocent.
The history of the Jews does not bring us much joy or comfort either. As we all know, the persecution of the Jews goes back a long, long time. In my view, however, what we need to understand about the Second World War, is the fact that the Nazis selected the Jews to perish for no reason other than their irrational, blind hatred of the entire race. That selection had nothing whatsoever to do with defending faith, territory, boundaries, rivalries, threats to independence or attempts to somehow undermine the German nationhood. It should be remembered that the German Jews, in particular, the very ones who contributed enormously to the German culture, economy and industry, were also great patriots. This was often a point of contention with the long-suffering Polish Jews.
With their carefully plotted master-plan for 'the final solution' to eradicate the Jewish race at least from the whole of Europe - if not from the face of the earth - the members of the 'Herren Rasse', led by a power-crazed megalomaniac, proceeded deliberately, in cold blood and with premeditation and great precision, to achieve their goal.

The genocide was carried out with such uncanny perfidy, with a cynical callousness of such proportions, that until the last moment their victims could not tell for certain what to expect next.

That a Western civilized European nation could bring itself in 1939, presumably the era of enlightenment after the First World War, to kill human beings in specially designed gas chambers and then burn their bodies in specially constructed crematoria, after firstly removing the gold fillings from their teeth: such deeds draw but few parallels.

Now back to my story.

Bolek and I were safely delivered in early November 1939 by our much resented yet indispensable 'aunt' to our destination at Dluga Street in Warsaw. Both Natka and Adolf welcomed us with open arms into their small flat. They did their very best to become a substitute for our parents, whom we desperately missed. I even remember sharing Natka's bed for a while.
We soon fell into the new routine. We loved helping in the sweets shop that the couple owned and operated in the nearby Nalewki Street. I began to perfect my very first attempts at selling. I soon progressed to the point when I was put in charge of the shop at lunchtime while the adults had their 'siesta time'.

The relative freedom of our life in Warsaw felt wonderful after what we had already been through. The Warsaw Ghetto did not officially exist as yet, so we could move freely without our yellow stars.

I had lots of free time, but I felt lost without my old school friends. My Warsaw cousins were at this stage still attending their respective schools.

Eventually the Nazis directed all Jewish schools to close by 4th Dec., 1939. I took to walking, and I slowly rediscovered the beauty of the capital.

The destruction caused by the initial German attacks was evident in many areas, though nowhere more so than in the poor Jewish Quarter. Food and fuel were in short supply, yet after Lodz the place felt like paradise.

Before the war, Warsaw had the magic of Paris, although admittedly on a smaller scale. The city boasted many theatres and a fine opera house.

I renewed my acquaintance with the National Theatre, famous for its revolving stage, and recalled a pre-war performance of Lehar's 'Merry Widow' at the Warsaw Opera House, which at the time left me mesmerized.

The city sprawls along the left bank of the winding Wisla (Vistula) river. It is linked by bridges to the suburb of Praga. Praga is notorious for the failed autumn 1944 Polish uprising against the Germans, when the Soviets refused to cross over to the capital to help the Poles. The Russians preferred instead to see their traditional enemy bleed and be destroyed.

I spent much time walking along Krakowskie Przedmiescie (Krakow Boulevard) and Nowy Swiat (New World) - two tree lined and very elegant and historically significant boulevards that follow one another.

All has been restored since those tragic times. Zamek, the 14th century royal castle takes pride of place. All along the boulevards, stand several smaller castles, some built by Italian artists who combined the Gothic with the Baroque. As well, a number of churches stand as a proud reminder of the former glory.

I remember the Holy Cross Church, where the heart of Frederic Chopin lies buried, the seat of the University of Warsaw housed in a palace (where anti-Semitism was rife) and the Staszyc Palace fronted by the statue of Mikolaj Kopernik (Copernicus). Further South, the very chic Aleje Ujazdowskie (Champs Elysees of Warsaw), culminates in a huge parkland, Lazienki. There stands the beautiful palace of king Stanislaw August Poniatowski. The ceilings of this palace were painted by Botticelli. Nearby, Belveder, (formerly the residence of Marshal Pilsudski), became in more recent times the home of Lech Walesa.

On our 1977 visit to Poland, Claude and I fed the squirrels in the Lazienki Park. Once again, in August 1997, we recaptured its serenity and exquisite beauty on one of those perfect Sunday afternoons.

My favourite haunt that winter of 1939/40 used to be Stare Miasto ( the Old City) which dates back to medieval times. Narrow, tallish houses (now restored and painted in pastel shades) hug the rectangular, once cobblestone, market square. Many narrow lanes open onto it. There also stands the 14th century Gothic cathedral of St. John.

In 1977, we had a meal with Hania Sz. and her husband at a little inn in one of the ancient houses.

The main Warsaw thoroughfare, Marszalkowska Street, runs parallel to Aleje Ujazdowskie. It is the equivalent to Piotrkowska in Lodz. In 1977, we stayed in Hania B.'s parents' flat there. The Russian contribution to the street is an enormous eyesore called the Palace of Culture, which we also inspected.

As the winter 1940 deepened, some of the lowest temperatures in living memory were recorded. Of necessity, my outdoor escapades had to be drastically curtailed. Simultaneously, acute fuel shortages rendered our existence even more precarious. Our homes were freezing. Cooking on the wood-cum-coal kitchen stoves became ever more difficult. I remember the huge pots of cabbage soup (the Jewish version) with scraps of meat floating in it. This became our staple diet.

Walking outdoors was considered risky, especially to the undernourished and the elderly. Reports began reaching us of people freezing to death on park benches. Ogrod Krasinski (Krasinski Gardens), the closest to us, became notorious for such incidents. If one ventured out, one had to muffle up and walk very fast, vigorously moving arms back and forth at all times. Balaclavas, heavy rubber boots, and thick woollen mittens were the order of the day. My chilblains have their origins in those days.

In the midst of this horrendous, unforgettable first winter of the war, our parents arrived from Lodz full of terrible tales. As soon as the Litzmannstadt Ghetto became a reality, we learned, the Germans set out to round up all the Jews who did not get out of the city beforehand.

Between 11-16 December, 1939, all the Jews still residing in Al. Kosciuszki, were rounded up. Our parents were ordered out of their flat, each with a small bundle of personal belongings. They had to give up their keys to their tormentors, before joining the long column of the other unfortunates in the neighbourhood.

Thus began their first grotesque, gruesome parade of men, women, and children. They were all adorned with yellow Stars of David front and back and led by armed guards along the roadway, across the city, to the Baluty area.

As the time went on, ever increasingly ominous processions of that sort were to follow.

My parents spent a couple of nights on the floor of a Baluty shop. Since they were subjected to an icy draft blowing under the doors, they slept fully clothed, their balaclavas offering some slight protection from the extreme cold. They eventually managed to bribe their way out of this first major hurdle.
Some of the more enterprising Polish peasants were making their fortune by smuggling the Jewish victims out of Lodz, in horse-driven carts which were normally used for wheat harvests. Our parents stayed buried amongst the stacks of hay. They were thus carted from village to village along country roads. By night, they huddled in peasant huts.
Our glee at seeing the whole family reunited at last knew no bounds. We could not hug or cry enough. As always, Mum and Dad's very presence ushered a strong sense of reassurance to the children. We felt relieved to find them safe and sound, in spite of their total exhaustion.

Our parents had managed to salvage only very few possessions. The contents of the little flat where we were staying were rearranged to accommodate us all. At night, even the dining room was converted to a bedroom. We were learning fast how to adjust to the daily hardships, sustained by our togetherness and the satisfaction of having escaped the hell of Lodz.

The first crisis of that period that I recall was an operation on my left heel. Apparently I did all that walking across Warsaw with a nail sticking inside my left shoe. Over time, a painful hard callus developed. It had to be removed. It was a small procedure, but under the German yoke nothing was simple. Eventually, thanks to my Mother's great resourcefulness and resilience in adversity, the best available surgeon was found and my heel fully restored to its former self.

This little incident sparked in my mind a much earlier recollection which might offer some light relief to my story.
In better times, in Lodz, during a Gym class one day, a large splinter became lodged in the big toe of my right foot. It must have penetrated the soft leather slipper. As I am by nature a great coward, I kept it a secret from my mother for some days. By the time it became infected, and therefore swollen and pretty sore, I felt compelled to reveal the truth. Then, on babcia Przybyszewicz's advice, my mother applied a hot fried onion to the offending toe. This ministration produced only large blisters and more pain.

In the end, we had to call a surgeon. For the occasion, my room was transformed into a makeshift operating theatre. The surgeon removed the splinter under local anaesthetic as I lay on my table.

The quality of life in Warsaw was deteriorating at an alarming rate. We had to buy our food on the black market. The available potatoes were frozen. Cooked, they tasted foul. Tea and coffee became unobtainable. Ersatz (substitute) was sold in a dark, liquid form in bottles. I soon learned the technique of being a door-to-door salesgirl, and I made some pocket money with the product.

Our cramped quarters, the scarcity of supplies, the terrible cold, plus the constant fear of the unknown, slowly took their toll.

Mother, close to her own Fragman family, adapted much better to the new circumstances than did Father. He seemed completely lost at times. I believe he related well enough to Natka and Adolf, but less so to the other numerous relatives.
Maybe he resented my other's over-the-top generosity which she had shown to all her poor relatives throughout the years. I remember that, during my 1961 visit to Tel Aviv, aunt Eva called my Mother 'an angel,' because of her great compassion.
The first spring of the war in Warsaw (1940 ) stands out in my mind. The Jews were still free to roam the streets at will, and I certainly took advantage of this short-lived indulgence offered by the Germans. It gave me the last opportunity of witnessing the wonderful sensation of the awakening of nature in Poland, before I became trapped in the utterly barren Warsaw Ghetto.
What a delight it is to observe the first buds on the branches, knowing that they will soon evolve into delicate green foliage and revitalize the winter bareness of the trees!

Fragrance of renewal pervades the parks. Once the stacks of straw that have sheltered the rose bushes from the onslaught of winter snow are removed, their zest for life is revealed. Very timidly at first, a multitude of blooms prepare to burgeon and blossom in all their dazzling colours.

I resumed my walking with renewed enthusiasm. Many of my school friends began appearing in Warsaw by that time. They had been exiled from Lodz just as we were. We soon made contact. It felt especially wonderful to be reunited with my bosom friend, Vitka.

By May 1940, the Lodz Ghetto became completely sealed.
From the 23rd November, 1939, all the Warsaw Jews were ordered to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David on the right forearm. At first, this seemed a bit of a joke, and not everyone obeyed. Soon however, even before the German occupier took any serious action, many Jews suffered dangerous consequences for non-compliance - this, courtesy of the Polish anti-Semites who denounced them.

I discovered a curious characteristic about myself, of which until that time I was absolutely unaware. Friends astounded me with the notion that I had an Arian looking face! For a Jew in Poland in 1940 such words proffered the greatest compliment to which one could aspire: it was a colossal advantage!

I am immediately reminded of a joke that appeared in the form of an advertisement shortly before the war in a satirical revue, Szpilki-Pins a publication not unlike the English 'Punch': 'Will exchange a motorbike in good order for an Arian grandmother'.

I could not bring myself to believe my good fortune at first, but I felt nevertheless tempted to try it out. My early experiments proved encouraging. As the time went on, my face became my greatest asset; ultimately, it was of an immense help to my survival.

Towards our first summer in Warsaw in 1940, someone offered us a spell in their country cottage at Srodborow. This was a charming holiday spot in the Warsaw district. (Claude and I visited Hania B's parents who were staying at a health resort there in 1977.)

My family could not risk such a trip, but I was allowed to go with two girlfriends, though I no longer remember who they were. We went there by public transport, and we did not wear our white armbands with the blue Star of David!

I recall walking along a stretch of open road between the railway station and the by-then abandoned cottage. I wore my Polish peasant girl outfit and kept smiling broadly at any passing German soldiers or Poles. My two friends tended to look sideways, or, if in doubt, they would bend over to adjust their socks.

That first attempt at deception worked like a dream, and for me it became the key to my future dealings with the Christian world throughout the war years.

We spent a few glorious days of total peace at Srodborow. At night we used to fasten the front door with a shoe lace, seeing that all the locks were gone. No one bothered us.

To my recollection, that was the last and only break before all the horrors of that war slowly overwhelmed us.


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