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All That Was: Chapter Eighteen - Hotel Gaststatte 'Am Hochenstein'

…I could glimpse the bar through the servery window. It was packed with military personnel of various ranks. Some were standing by the counter waiting their turns; others were already seated at the tables. All the while, engaged in animated conversation, they sipped the foaming liquid from their half-litre glass mugs. The noise was deafening and the air thick with cigarette smoke.

As I watched the scene, I realized there and then that in my mind I had to bury the irretrievable past. For the foreseeable future my only option was to embrace this alien scenario. If I were to pull through I had to learn how best to conceal my inner bewilderment from any prying eyes. Over time I let this resolve permeate my psyche until a new persona emerged: 'Christa, das Putzmadchen'…

Lusia Przybyszewicz, having escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, settles into the drudgery and routine of work in a German hotel.

Lusia’s never-to-be-forgotten life story, All That Was, is available from her at PO Box 404 Vaucluse, NSW, 2030, Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

My newly acquired employer was a tall, solidly built, attractive, fair-skinned woman. Her long blond hair was expertly gathered into a bun at the back of her head. It highlighted her strong Germanic countenance. She presented the picture of a typical no-nonsense Hausfrau. The welcome she accorded me in the hotel's large kitchen was a clear indication that her very busy, understaffed establishment could well do with another pair of hands.

The German members of her staff seemed swept off their feet as they prepared for the dinner rush hour.

I could glimpse the bar through the servery window. It was packed with military personnel of various ranks. Some were standing by the counter waiting their turns; others were already seated at the tables. All the while, engaged in animated conversation, they sipped the foaming liquid from their half-litre glass mugs. The noise was deafening and the air thick with cigarette smoke.

As I watched the scene, I realized there and then that in my mind I had to bury the irretrievable past. For the foreseeable future my only option was to embrace this alien scenario. If I were to pull through I had to learn how best to conceal my inner bewilderment from any prying eyes. Over time I let this resolve permeate my psyche until a new persona emerged: 'Christa, das Putzmadchen.'

That evening, after I had partaken of a most welcome meal, I eventually made the acquaintance of my fellow employees. They were all fine examples of young German womanhood. Gita was the principal cook. She was an 18-year-old, buxom, healthy-looking blond.

Giesela, a pretty and shapely brunette, seemed slightly older than Gita. She shared the waitressing duties with Maria, a deep-voiced, black-haired, deadly serious girl who was probably in her late twenties.

Agnes, Frau Hagemann's younger sister, was a thin, fair-haired, pale and lifeless spinster. She took charge of the bar. In the absence of the master she also assisted her proprietress sister with the smooth running of the place.

Hans Hagemann, the owner's husband, was a Gruppen Fiihrer (quite a lowly rank) in the Waffen SS. He was stationed in Poland, and he came home only on very rare occasions.

Their likewise fair-haired, though cross-eyed, five year old son, Wienfried, lived with mummy at the Hotel. Unlike the tough and resolute Hitler's boys as depicted in film, this child barely stopped winging and whining.

From the outset I accepted the notion that I could only be regarded as a lowly Pole whose duty it was to help all of the others at all times. Everyone addressed me by 'du', but I had that right only if talking to Winfried, or Ano, the dog. The adults remained 'Sie' to me.

The building stood at the edge of town at the end of Arndt Strasse. Beyond, a vast, denuded stretch of land awaited future development. The name of the estate was Stadt des K.D.F. Wagens. Its sole role was to accommodate the German families, whose members worked at the Volkswagenwerk, a three-kilometre long factory, established by Hitler shortly before the war. The Fuhrer himself laid its foundation stone.

The purpose of the Volkswagenwerk project was to create a popular family car affordable to the average German citizen. In the name of the estate, K. stood for Kraft, meaning strength; D. stood for 'durch' meaning through; and F. stood for Freude, meaning joy. 'Strength through Joy' was a powerful slogan for the Nazi propaganda machine.

From the outside 'Am Hochenstein' merged completely with the uniformly uninspiring and purely utilitarian architecture of the entire residential area. The ground floor of our hotel encompassed a small lobby, a large restaurant on two levels with bar and an adjoining big, well-equipped kitchen.

Across the corridor a double door opened onto an enormous banquet room reserved for special occasions. In between functions, as I was soon to discover, the chairs had to be neatly stacked along the walls. In one corner of the room stood the piano. The wall opposite the grand entrance was graced by a large, heavily framed portrait of Hitler.

The Hagemann family and Agnes lived in one section of the first floor. The separate, remaining area included some fifteen guest rooms, all opening onto a long corridor, as well as washrooms and toilets.

The staff lived on the second floor. Each one had a room off a similar long corridor. We all shared the well-appointed bathroom and other facilities. We accessed our private quarters by a terrazzo staircase behind the lobby or via the wooden staircase behind the kitchen.

A small spiral staircase from the kitchen led to a spacious cellar, not unlike the one we had in Lodz. In the cellar Frau Hagemann kept all the hotel's supplies in well-defined areas. Potatoes were stored in a separate chamber provided with a direct access to the street.

One completely sealed off compartment was fitted out as an air raid shelter. It boasted upholstered bunks along the walls, emergency lighting, survival iron rations and a water tank, in which the water had to be changed daily.

Ano, the Alsatian, lived in the small garden off the kitchen. His kennel was reinforced by a roomy cage to help safeguard the lives of the many domestic rabbits (Kanninchen) in the neighbourhood. Due to the food shortages the ordinary people were forced to supplement their diet by keeping entire families of these small rodents in their backyards.

At night time Ano was brought into the restaurant. There he roamed freely, hopefully, watching over us. In the mornings, before any other task could go ahead, the undeniable proof of his presence had to be removed from wherever he chose to deposit it. It was awful!

On the day of my arrival, after a lonely dinner at the kitchen table, I was taken to the second floor and shown my very own furnished room. It contained one spare bed. In spite of my lingering sense of insecurity, I felt astounded by such largesse. A blackout made of plywood was fitted to the window. It included a slot for the handle. Its purpose was to forestall nightly enemy air raids.

As soon as I was left alone to my own devices I recall first placing the precious bread which the Polish priest had given to us on our departure on the window sill. 'Just in case,' I thought to myself. It remained in that spot, hard as stone, for the first ten days of my stay.

Try as I might I could barely do justice to my new surroundings with the bundle of tattered clothes I had managed to salvage from Warsaw. I hid them all in the wardrobe.

My first real bath sent me into ecstasy! I had entirely lost the habit of soaking leisurely in a bathtub. The experience was unique. Moreover, I felt impressed by the German plumbing system. Compared with our bathroom in Lodz, it seemed much more advanced.

After a very long day at last I slipped into my bed between snow white, starched sheets. Once again some old memories stirred in my mind.

The working day began at 5 a.m. At such an early hour on removing the blackout from the window I could scarcely distinguish the blurred outline of the distant woods.

When I came down to the kitchen, I was issued with a set of working clothes, including several aprons (schurzen), with which the German housewives seemed totally obsessed.

Due to the shortage of leather, my black boots had wooden soles ingeniously fitted with rows of hinges to give them flexibility. I learned to lace them with string.

I was now truly on Frau Hagemann's team, her very own Polin (Polish girl). I was given to understand that I must always uphold the standards of neatness and politeness that would do her proud.

From that day on Christa die Polin was initiated into the realm of "putzen und saubermachen' (clean and polish). After a while I gained skills that would have impressed even our dear Frania. I had to learn to identify the specific purpose for which each of the set of three rags was especially intended. Only then was I allowed to drop to my knees to fulfil my duties.

In my previous life I had practically ignored the existence of the Fussleisten (skirting boards). Now polishing them became the object of my greatest endeavours. I had to rub them thoroughly with each one of the indispensable three pieces of cloth. The greatest possible attention at all times had to be given to corners everywhere (Ecken immer mitnehmen).

In the early days of my new career, Frau Hagemann watched over me constantly. She issued instructions and corrections. I can still clearly see her towering over me, her hands resting on her ample hips and a slightly mocking expression in her keen blue eyes. And yet, thinking back, I do not believe I ever came to really dislike her.

My boss had worked very hard from her earliest childhood, and she simply expected the same effort from others. She could perform all of those chores much better than I could. In fact, she taught me many useful practices. One that comes to mind is the art of cleaning a mirror without hopelessly smudging it. On the whole I found her tough but fair in all our dealings. Her incredible efficiency in single-handedly running the entire enterprise commanded respect.

I was very gradually becoming used to the new routines, though by the end of the fifteen-hour working day I felt pretty exhausted and still a bit hungry.

Some ten days passed by. I learned to have my breakfast alone in the kitchen while the entire German contingent ate together in the adjoining staff dining room. Our menus differed considerably as well. The same contrast was evident at other mealtimes. Still, bit by bit, my communication with the other girls was progressing. They were all nice to me - more often helpful than bossy. The fact that I spoke their language was a definite plus. For my part, I tried very hard not to appear too smart as well as avoiding any controversial or intrusive subjects. Work-related matters were the safest ground for our verbal exchanges.

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