« Buster | Main | Fascination »

All That Was: Chapter Fifteen - Salvation With The Arians

“”On her way she was stopped at the 'barber's' to have her hair cut off. At the next stop she had to strip and leave her clothing in a neat pile. Shoes had to be tied with a piece of string supplied on the spot by the constantly yelling and threatening Ukrainian guards. Further on, all the valuables were to be left with an 'official'- murderer. Before she reached the 'showers', stark naked, she was issued with a cake of soap. Throughout these sadistic, vicious proceedings a ten member Jewish band led by Arthur Gold was forced to play military tunes to drown the wailing of the victims….’’

Many years after after the ending of World War Two Lusia Przybyszewicz visited Treblinka, the camp where her mother, and hundreds of thousands of other Jews, were put to death. “I can never suppress tears when I think about the way my mother died.’’

Continuing her own story, Lusia, who escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, describes how she was befriended by an “aunt’’ and “uncle’ who found her a job in a pocket torch factory.

Lusia’s book All That Was can be obtained from her at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

It is difficult to describe adequately the mixed emotions and thoughts that raced through my mind as I strutted out with my new identity towards the unknown.

Outside of the Ghetto walls Polish Warsaw seemed strangely peaceful and relaxing. The glorious summer weather on this momentous day in late August 1942 filled me with elation - a sensation of both relief and hope.

I was 19 years old. In spite of the deepest sorrow at abandoning my family and with ever-present fear, I was still very eager to keep on living. Even though I was in a state of utter exhaustion after the recent ordeals in the Ghetto, I felt ready to take on new challenges.

Nervous energy propelled me onward in the direction of Bela's Polish friends' apartment at 13 Bracka Street. It was located near the intersection with the Square of the Three Crosses, in the centre of which three cupolas adorn the beautifully proportioned baroque church of the same name. Claude and I explored the area in August 1997, but the house was no longer there.

Worn out and destitute I arrived at my destination in the late afternoon. I looked thin and pale. The friendly Poles were expecting me because of the prior arrangements we had made over the phone from the Ghetto. I was warmly welcomed by the family, which consisted of a childless couple, probably in their thirties. As I recall, their names were Janina and Jerzy. Jerzy's mother lived with them. We all called her 'Babcia'. We had already met during my earlier expeditions in search of the anti-typhus vaccines.

They gave me food I had not tasted in so very many months. As well, I inherited some clothes that Bela had left with them before her desperate flight to the Ghetto with my small cousin Stefanek. This wardrobe included an astrakhan fur coat similar to my mother’s and a few dresses but very little underwear. By the time I retired to their living room for the night, I was well fed, clean and comfortable and almost at peace. This was my first night ‘out’.

My hosts explained that I was to be officially introduced as their niece from the country who had come for a prolonged visit to the capital. I was thus to address them as ciocia (aunt) and wujek (uncle) respectively. The only condition they imposed was for me to undertake not to communicate with my family in the Ghetto other than from a public phone. This rule I promised to observe.

Both Jerzy and Janina were working six days a week. Babcia ran the household. She supplemented their income by taking in ironing from her clients in the neighbourhood.

They lived in a modest apartment on the first floor of a large block of flats. Their windows looked out across the familiar courtyard onto the windows of all the other tenants. From the very beginning this aspect made me particularly nervous. I abhorred the very idea of being watched.

I had a job lined up at a pocket torch factory. Before I started work, however, everyone agreed that I first needed some time to collect myself and maybe fatten up a little. Thus a novel routine began to unfold in the bosom of my brand new family. After the couple left for work I helped Babcia with various household chores, to do some very modest shopping or pick up and deliver large baskets of laundry.

Babcia was quite old but still pretty sturdy. A dark scarf tied under her chin underscored an open, heavily wrinkled face and warm, patient eyes. At every turn she revealed the quiet resilience of a typical long-suffering Polish peasant. She could have easily been the nanny that held me in her arms in the Lodz cathedral all those years ago. We took an instant liking to each other.

The kitchen stove required constant refuelling. Seeing that the aggressors grabbed all the available coal, it needed constant supplies of wood. I had to learn how to chop it if I wanted to save Babcia from such a heavy task at her age.

Unaccustomed, I found this activity quite hard at first but became used to it pretty fast. The firewood was delivered in massive logs of uniform size. After splitting them first with a sharp tomahawk on the ground floor landing, I cut each section into smaller pieces or kindling, then carried several loads up the flight of stairs to the flat. Such daily chores and food shortages made me soon realize that life on the Christian side was not a bed of roses either.

Finding affordable meat presented a dilemma for the majority of the population, who lacked the means to pay black market prices. In the circumstances Babcia’s thrill the day she acquired a bullock’s heart was fully justified. Never mind that the simmering process took several hours or that the cooking meat exuded all the while a very pungent smell. When at long last the dish was ready to serve, we all appreciated both the tasty broth and the flesh.

On one occasion I was given the responsibility of picking up our potato allocation from the nearest distribution centre. There I was issued with a hessian bag containing some 70 kilograms of mostly frozen potatoes. I made several unsuccessful attempts to haul it onto my back. It kept lurching dangerously from side to side, pulling me with it as it fell. It took me ages to finally carry the heavy weight down the stairs and into the cellar.

The closeness between the old lady and myself provided my sadly battered ego with a new confidence. Possibly, our relationship served also as a buffer against my constant anguish about the fate of my family behind the walls. The news from them was scarce.

On my first Sunday 'on the outside,' Babcia advised me to go to church with her to keep up appearances for the sake of the neighbourhood. I had to agree with her convincing argument. Hence we developed yet another new habit: the two of us attended the morning mass at the church of the Three Crosses. We were attired in our Sunday best. (I revisited the restored church with Claude in August 1997.)

My relations with Janina and Jerzy were always very cordial. He was tall, dark-haired and muscular with a strong, mobile, handsome face and his mother's kind eyes. I remember him as consistently gallant in that special Polish way of the educated, refined middle class.

Janina was smaller than her husband and not particularly pretty. Her hair remained always tied neatly at the back. Absence of any make-up helped to highlight a rather austere, stern expression in her greenish, wistful eyes. Occasionally, unlike her husband, she would snap at people. Jerzy usually stayed calm under pressure.

I liked Jerzy better. I never felt sure whether Janina would have risked taking me into her home on her own initiative. I believe Jerzy eventually became the first post-war Mayor of the city of Torufi.

I was rapidly becoming accustomed to my new environment. At the same time I was almost entirely deprived of news from the Ghetto. My deep-seated anxiety was growing. The disturbing unease never left me.

One night in early September I woke up from a fearful nightmare: I dreamed that my mother had been killed. I stayed trembling in my bed till the morning. In the course of the following day news reached us that my mother had been 'selected' for Treblinka at the Umschlag Platz. She was gone. The timing of that incubus and of the subsequent events coincided precisely with the notorious Kessel (cauldron) mass deportations staged between the 6th and the 12th of September, 1942. (I mentioned these earlier).

Many years later in London I learned the details from Jasia's aunt Marysia who had witnessed it all. My poor, poor mother, who by then looked like a ghost of her former self, was hustled into the cattle train with all of the others who were considered no longer of any use to the German war effort. My nightmare was an example of some kind of 'telepathy' I suppose. It was and remains, for me, a unique experience.

Even though I was always aware of the likelihood of this tragedy, I was deeply shattered by it. In fact, I do not believe I have ever got over it completely. I can never suppress tears when I think about the way my mother died.

On our visit to Poland in August 1997 I had the chance to see for myself the place where it had occurred. We reached the remote village of Treblinka after a relatively short drive from Warsaw. Having Claude and my cousin Yarden with me made this extraordinary ordeal somewhat easier to bear.

From the roadway, the former death camp is obscured from view by mosquito-ridden marshes. The visitor is suddenly confronted by a symbolic cemetery that consists of an assortment of unmatched pieces of rock in varied shapes and sizes. Rows upon rows of tombstones bear the names of countries or cities or families from whence the individuals whose lives ended there had originated. On some of the stones a few loving words, scratched out with a sharp instrument, accompany the name. In place of the former gas chambers stands an imposing Memorial which dominates the mournful landscape.

As I retraced my mother's footsteps from the still well-preserved railway siding to the Memorial, a graphic picture of her final ordeal rose before me. I could see her run in sheer terror to her death along a narrow path bounded by barbed wire fences, which in their perfidy the Ukrainian thugs concealed by fresh pine branches woven through them.

On her way she was stopped at the 'barber's' to have her hair cut off. At the next stop she had to strip and leave her clothing in a neat pile. Shoes had to be tied with a piece of string supplied on the spot by the constantly yelling and threatening Ukrainian guards. Further on, all the valuables were to be left with an 'official'- murderer. Before she reached the 'showers', stark naked, she was issued with a cake of soap. Throughout these sadistic, vicious proceedings a ten member Jewish band led by Arthur Gold was forced to play military tunes to drown the wailing of the victims.

I made my final farewells to my dearest Mother with that picture in my mind.

I will now return to my story.

The three Poles around me did their very best to keep up my spirits. I was unable to sleep, eat, or communicate with anyone for several days. It was unwise to allow the neighbours to see me in such a state. Janina and Jerzy took me to Czestochowa for a spell. Czestochowa is situated in southwestern Poland, in the Swietokszyskie Mountains on the river Warta. It is the centre of pilgrimage for the Polish Catholics, similar to Lourdes in France.

We travelled by train. The weather was magnificent. Fresh air, open spaces, the beautiful, hilly countryside I had not seen for so long - all of this had a soothing effect upon me. The fact that I had never before been to this part of Poland added another dimension to my experience.

We stayed with my hosts' relatives in a charming farmhouse surrounded by vast orchards. One section of the property was reserved for the cultivation of absolutely delicious tomatoes. I was fascinated by the many varieties on display. I must confess I have never again seen such a sight.

On a more sober note, I remember coming upon a village nearby where the local Jews were all wearing the Star of David. They were probably still unaware of the horrors which fate had in store for them. In my acquired role of a perfect stranger I only dared to glance at them furtively. Simultaneously, their presence gave me a sharp reminder of how much my eventual survival depended on never betraying my true feelings. This cold appraisal of my predicament must have numbed the terrible pain within me. Be it as it may, on our return to Warsaw I was able to regain a relative composure.

As the time for me to start work at the factory approached, I began to perfect the new skills called for in this new setting. I was very much aware that from then on I would be hunted as an individual rather than a member of a pack, as was the case within the Ghetto.

Outside of my 'family' I trusted no one. I proceeded to make a meticulous study of the general bearing and language of the Christian milieu. Until then it had all been quite unfamiliar to me. I soon noticed how the daily idiom differed. Often an alternate word would be used for the same thing. A good example was the humble potato. The Jews called it 'kartofel' after the German 'die Kartoffel'. The Poles referred to it as 'ziemniak,' after 'ziemia,' the soil. Inflexion was also at variance with my own usage, even though there has never been any trace of the Yiddish intonation in my Polish.

I became absorbed in all this and tried to imitate the mannerisms, facial expressions, and restraint of my peers. To further enhance my Arian face, I wore my longish hair swept up at the back and sides.

About that time I remember one day almost bumping into my former Headmistress from Orzeszkowa near my home in Bracka Street. She was a Christian, of course. She was living somewhere in Warsaw with her two sons. We were both rather shaken by the experience, and we parted soon after exchanging a few pleasantries.

In spite of all my efforts, Babcia overheard some comments from neighbours who were suspicious of my 'melancholy eyes full of longing' and the nostalgic, foreign tunes that escaped from the open windows of our flat. Though there was not much I could do about my eyes, I immediately cut down on the singing.

All my attempts at not drawing any attention to myself were further complicated by the fact that quite often young men found me attractive. Instead of feeling flattered, I usually felt terrified.

Before the end of September 1942, I started my new job. The Polish factory at Mokotow, near the airport, was supplying torches under contract to the German armed forces. To reach the factory I had to catch a tram in Marszalkowska Street very early in the morning. The tram was always overcrowded. Including travelling time to the factory and back, I averaged a 14-hour day, six days a week. In wintertime I never saw daylight.

The factory was owned by two brothers, Zbigniev and Boguslav. They were both electrical engineers. Soldering of the metal tubes (three to a rectangular battery) was done in the unfinished upstairs section of the building. Downstairs in the assembly department, where the torches were put together and checked, Stasiek had the task of overseer. He was also an electrical engineer and a good friend of the two brothers. In total, there were about three dozen employees, most of them girls of my age.

I began my new career downstairs. The work was not hard, and the ambiance very pleasant. Although I was perpetually on my guard, I nevertheless made feeble overtures towards my workmates. Their response on the whole was quite positive.

Most of them came from a blue collar background. They had suffered various degrees of hardship and deprivation under the occupation. After hours they generally tried to make up for the daily misery with their boyfriends, on whom all their conversation seemed to focus.

One girl, though, stood out. Halina N. was not much taller than I. She wore her dark hair trimmed like that of a boy. The allure of her chiselled features was complemented by the intelligent look in her green eyes which laughed at you without malice. She was the first one to befriend me.

From the beginning, I could not help admiring her wit and sense of fun. She made me immediately feel at home. With her strong personality and little regard for conventions, she appeared to wield a certain influence in the workshop. I could not tell how much she guessed, but she often advised me not to be so serious and not to work so hard. I took the hint anyway, and I tried to act in a light-hearted, flippant way, like the others.

Within a short time, she revealed to me that Boguslav was her lover. I was very surprised to hear that, as neither of them gave the slightest inkling of such a relationship existing. I felt impressed by her sang-froid. By attending a few parties, Polish style, held on Saturdays after work, I was slowly drawn into her social circle.

We gathered on the factory premises in the management quarters. There was always some vodka, distilled at home from wheat, cigarettes rolled from cheap tobacco and usually not much else. I have only the vaguest recollection about the eight to ten participants, including the brothers, who attended the parties. I believe Zbigniev, the elder brother, was already married.

Since everyone had a partner, I was soon paired off with Stasiek. I remember him as a fair-haired, dreamy, blue-eyed Polish romantic. He was probably in his late twenties. He was not very tall nor particularly handsome. He had a good mind, and by nature he was very kind. He felt and thought deeply. I found him to be a very pleasant companion, and I was aware that he liked me a lot. During the couple or so months that we knew each other, our rapport remained strained because of my reserve. To him, this was quite inexplicable.

Every one in the group was fiercely patriotic. This resulted in discussions which focussed on a blind hatred of the enemy and on all possible ways of defying him. Naturally, I had no problem whatsoever identifying with those sentiments.

We would sift through news that filtered in from the underground resistance movements. We plotted devious ways to deal with shortages of food, fuel, or clothing. Often, to add some sparkle to our gatherings, we recounted with relish the latest jokes that mocked the Germans. The tone of such sessions was invariably conspiratorial: an old Polish tradition.

In my guarded way I felt at ease with my new companions. I felt even privileged to be accepted on trust into their fold.

Over time the German authorities increasingly harassed the management and interfered in the running of the factory. They scrutinized the employees' eligibility to work there. Those considered or deemed redundant might be sent directly to the Labour Camps in the Reich. As the German losses on the Eastern front grew larger, we all knew how slave labour was desperately needed there to maintain the manufacture of the military hardware.

In the streets of Warsaw, 'Lapanki' became quite common. This was the practice of cordoning off a block or more and detaining all of the able-bodied passers-by within the area. Those detained were unceremoniously shipped away to some industrial plant in the Reich, where the labour shortages occurred. We quickly learned to duck for cover at the very sight of an approaching German lorry.

One day Stasiek was caught in this wicked web. He ended up in a camp, deep in Germany. There was nothing anyone could do about it.

I later sent him some parcels with old undergarments I had pinched from the guest rooms of the Hotel-Gaststatte 'Am Hochenstein’ in the Stadt des K.D.F. Wagens, where I was eventually employed in 1943/44 and into 1945.

About that time I also remember that the invader ordered some special reprisals against perceived acts of sabotage committed by the Polish resistance. Some half a dozen victims were hanged from wooden poles erected in one of Warsaw’s public squares. The dead bodies were left dangling from the noose for everyone to see.

Toward the end of September and throughout October 1942 I was able to hold a brief daily phone conversation with my father in the Ghetto. We addressed each other in the third person.

I was Panna (Miss) Krystyna and he was Pan Henryk. For security reasons we had to avoid discussion of any matter close to our heart, especially my mother’s awesome fate. Although our tone remained emotionless and the trauma of it all was unbearable, just being able to hear each other’s voices was a great spirit booster.

I learned that my father continued working as a cutter, though I no longer knew where. I also found out that Bolek was with him. They both seemed to be keeping on somehow. It was tough to cope with those exchanges.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.