« Wait To Be Told | Main | A Gravel Highway To Paradise »

All That Was: Chapter Nineteen - Work Makes Life Sweet

...“Over time, during that short moment when we were free of the Germans, we learned to pinch food. We would, for instance, half-fill our cups with sugar and then keep refilling them with coffee from the coffee machine until all the sugar was used up. At the right moment we stuffed our apron pockets with whatever else seemed safe to take. I developed a habit of placing a large dirty-looking hanky over my loot, aware that no self respecting German would investigate it for fear of catching a disease.

I craved butter. Sometimes, in a dark corner, I would swallow a whole lump of margarine stored in my pocket. I felt a little uneasy the morning the Cheffin made a comment about a finger mark she spotted in the margarine in the fridge.’’...

Lusia Przybyszewicz and two other Jewish girls who had also escaped from the Warsaw ghetto had to work extremely hard in a German hotel – but there were lighter moments amid the toil and worries, and the comfort of new-found friendship.

Read Lusia’s deeply moving story from the beginning by click on All That Was in the menu on this page. The book is obtainable from her at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW, 2030, Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

Just as I was beginning to gain some confidence, an extraordinary event shattered my newly found peace. One day as I was in the process of polishing the corridor skirting board with one of my three dusters, the Cheffin suddenly called out, 'Christa!'

I looked up from the floor. There she stood, in the company of two girls. I knew at once they were Jewish. The elder one appeared to be in her twenties; the younger one was about seventeen years old. The Cheffin explained that they were Polish sisters, S. and R. They had come to join our staff. She asked me to show them around. They were to share my room.

I felt mortified and amused at the same time. The new arrivals also looked most uncomfortable and unsure about me. S., the elder of the two, tried to mumble something in what was supposed to be German, but it came out as the familiar Warsaw Ghetto Yiddish. It sounded quite exotic in this particular part of the world, in the middle of the war.

I found it almost impossible to keep a straight face. I dropped my rags. Without a word, I led them both upstairs to my quarters. An uneasy silence followed for a bit. We began to talk in Polish. Of the two, the elder dark-haired girl's features betrayed her Semitic origins more than did her sister's. R. was pretty. Her young face was enhanced by a mass of thick curly blond hair. She appeared extremely timid and left S. totally in charge.

We sized each other up. S. thought I was a real Pole who could perhaps guess their true identity and denounce them. On the other hand, I felt their presence to be altogether an added risk to my own safety. Of course there was no way that either side would reveal the truth in so many words: the stakes were too high.

The girls began to unpack their very scanty belongings and prepared to share the single spare bed. Unexpectedly, S. took out of her bundle a small crucifix hanging from a chain. With the help of her shoe, she attempted to drive a small nail into the wall above their bed with the obvious intention of suspending the crucifix from it.

At that point I knew that I had to somehow put an end to this whole farce. I stared directly at S. and made the observation that holes in the walls should be avoided because they provided breeding ground for bedbugs. At once, the ice was broken and the three of us burst out laughing. All ambiguity vanished! We said no more on the subject, but we knew where we stood and forthwith resolved to present a united front to the Germans.

Over and above, the events of that remarkable day gave me enough courage to finally dispose of my stale Polish bread still languishing on the windowsill. That evening, to the great merriment of the German staff, the three of us celebrated the occasion by taking our bath together in the same tub.

The employment of the new arrivals brought about an even harsher, never-ending working regime at the hotel. Frau Hagemann was committed to extracting the best possible value out of her bolstered Polish contingent. In our working attire, protected by the morning aprons, we reported to the kitchen at 5:00 a.m. sharp. From the outset S. and I were given clear responsibilities.

S. was to become Gita's assistant in the kitchen. I best remember her seated for long hours on a stool near the sink peeling potatoes. Her daily goal was to fill to the brim Winfried's old bathtub with the potatoes. Gita did not tolerate any blemish left on their perfect whiteness and yet, to S.'s deepest chagrin, wearing of rubber gloves was considered too cissy to contemplate.

The ensuing process, of truly Herculean proportions, consisted of washing and then transferring the potatoes to an enormous vessel, almost as tall as I was, prior to its hoisting onto the stove; there they were left to boil. In spite of our help, the practice played havoc with S.'s back.

When the potatoes were ready, the whole process went into reverse. After easing the excessively heavy container off the stove, we had to carry it to and tilt it over a low-set special sink, to drain the excess water. Burning hot pot handles and blinding steam were part of the fun.

The Cheffin entrusted S. also with the preparation of all the other vegetables for the daily soup. They were cooked together with meat bones in another oversized container on top of the gargantuan stove.

To compensate for the small meat rations available, the restaurant used to serve lots of starchy foods all concocted by Gita. These included peas or haricot beans in thick bechamel sauce, smoked fish and typically German hot puddings. Gita prepared every dish with a lightning speed. She could peel a bucket of onions in just a couple of minutes without shedding one tear. She was truly amazing.

S.'s other major task included the washing up of stacks of dirty plates and cutlery brought into the kitchen by Maria and Giesela after meals. In the absence of a modern washing machine, each item had to be thoroughly washed by hand and then rinsed, compelling poor S. to spend a lot of her time stooped over the double sink. As she started her daily roster with the early breakfast shift, she had a long day indeed.

I remained the principal cleaner and the only Polin allowed some direct contact with the guests. This dubious distinction bestowed upon me probably had something to do with my relative knowledge of the language.

My morning started with the polishing of shoes and boots left outside the guest rooms' doors. R. assisted me after she finished removing Ano's mess from the restaurant floor. My next chore, by far the most obnoxious, still before breakfast, involved the cleaning of eleven toilets (Damen und Herren) scattered throughout the hotel. For this unenviable assignment I was equipped with a bucket, more rags, a mop, and a length of wire for dealing with clogged plumbing. It took some pluck to face food directly after such exploits, but there was no other choice.

Always in a great hurry, the three of us had breakfast together at the kitchen table. Each was entitled to one bread roll spread with a little margarine. S. missed her beloved garlic, and so, in spite of our pleading with her, she always smothered her roll with chopped onion.

Over time, during that short moment when we were free of the Germans, we learned to pinch food. We would, for instance, half-fill our cups with sugar and then keep refilling them with coffee from the coffee machine until all the sugar was used up. At the right moment we stuffed our apron pockets with whatever else seemed safe to take. I developed a habit of placing a large dirty-looking hanky over my loot, aware that no self respecting German would investigate it for fear of catching a disease.

I craved butter. Sometimes, in a dark corner, I would swallow a whole lump of margarine stored in my pocket. I felt a little uneasy the morning the Cheffin made a comment about a finger mark she spotted in the margarine in the fridge.

With the breakfast over I set out to scour the restaurant. Often some official from amongst our house guests who was about to catch an early train to Berlin or Hanover would already be sipping his coffee at a table. After exchanging the inevitable greeting 'Heil Hitler' with him, I continued mopping the floors and replacing all the chairs left on top of the tables at the end of trading the night before. Then I emptied the ashtrays, dusted the furniture, and so on.

By the time I finished tidying all the downstairs, sometimes with R.'s help, most of the guest rooms upstairs were empty. Sprucing up of these rooms was the highlight of my day because I was left for several hours to my own devices. My peace was disturbed only when someone's bedsheets had to be changed. On such occasions Giesela came up for a short while to assist me.

By gradually examining their belongings, photos, books they read or notes lying about, I learned a great deal about our guests. Many of them worked at the Volkswagenwerk, some carried out administrative duties for the Municipality, and a few were high-ranking officers passing through. A couple of mothers with children were anxiously awaiting the return of their husbands and fathers from the front.

Above all, I discovered to my absolute delight a radio in every room. Prior to this time the last radio I had been free to handle all by myself was ours in Lodz - until October ’39, that is! Now with this new temptation within my grasp, I began to think up some daring schemes.

Of course a large radio was located in the Germans' staff room by the kitchen. Its loudspeakers blared out to the Gaststatte, either reporting Nazi successes on all the fronts or broadcasting Hitler's frenzied speeches, half drowned out by the ear-splitting response of 'Sieg Heil' from the adoring crowds. Bouts of military music boomed at all other times.

After lunch we were allowed half an hour's rest in our room. To ensure our punctuality, we were provided with an alarm clock. At the precise moment the three of us came down the internal wooden staircase to the kitchen, spruced up and looking resplendent in our afternoon aprons.

Very often at that hour Gita sent me shopping. For the purpose I was provided with a wooden, hand-operated cart, which I soon learnt to tow along the roadway by means of a sturdy handle. On such occasions my 'P' for Pole was firmly attached to the right side of my shirt, just above my bosom.

Normally I would call on the Flemish-Belgian greengrocer located on the main road. He was a well-known Nazi sympathizer.

He usually had my boss's order prepared well in advance and now just stood there, happily watching me stack cases of spinach, kohlrabi, cabbage, beetroot, rhubarb and what have you in the cart. When I was done, I resumed my role of a draught horse and dragged my weighty consignment back to the hotel kitchen.

Along the way there was not another Pole to be seen. Most Poles lived in camps around the factory. By contrast, many members of the notorious Hitler Jugend would pass me by on their way from schools or open air meetings. They wore their distinctive uniforms with swastikas bound around their left forearms. I automatically tried to keep out of their way. Their leaders fed them the appropriate ammunition to generate contempt and hatred for such Untermenschen (less than human) as myself. They often shouted abuse at me. On occasions they would spit in my direction.

On the other hand, German housewives doing their errands always smiled sympathetically, though they did not dare to actually speak to me in public. That occurred only when I went into the garden with left over scraps of food for Ano. At such moments, from the safety of their back yards, they would chat to me happily over the fence. Often they offered some small items of clothing for the three of us.

Although officially there were no more 'dirty' Jews left in the Reich by the Summer 1943, all of the offices, banks, and the like in the town had 'Juden Eintritt Verboten' signs at the entrance. Portraits of the Fuhrer gaped at you from all the shop windows.

Sometimes I would be sent to the bakery that still upheld the superb German standards of bread and roll making. When my employer learned that I could ride a bicycle, she also entrusted me with the task of fetching milk, sour milk, rusks, etc., from further afield. The bike had a shopping basket fitted at the front and bottle holders attached to the handlebars.

I loved sharing those shopping expeditions with the cycling fraternity, most of whom were women. They offered a welcome diversion from my cleaning chores and momentarily made me feel as if I were part of the general community.

R., besides having to clean Frau Hagemann's private quarters each day, was always on call. Being the youngest, she had to do all the odd jobs, others could not or would not do. The hierarchy of age seemed of the essence to the Germans. Our minuscule wages were also paid accordingly; S. received the highest wage. It did not really matter much anyway because on the whole the merchandise available in the shops was of little use to us.

Meanwhile, even though it was clear that we came from different socio-economic backgrounds, the trust between the sisters and me grew rapidly. S. did not dwell on the details, but I soon learned that she had either left or lost her husband in the Warsaw Ghetto. I had no doubt that of the two she was the driving force behind their escape. With her distinctly Semitic-looking face she had to summon all her courage to successfully bribe the Polish guards in Warsaw.

Soon we established a genuine bond of friendship. It immeasurably lifted our spirits, and it helped the three of us to cope with the daily hazards of life in Nazi Germany.

For a long while Arbeit (work) remained our only goal. In case we ever forgot its significance, a wooden plaque displayed on the kitchen wall, was there to reminded us that: 'Arbeit macht das Leben suss' (work makes life sweet).

As I followed my daily cleaning routines, I slowly began to unravel the truth about the war situation from some snippets of conversations amongst our guests or from the remotest hints uncunningly revealed on the German radio.

It became apparent that the Allied Armies had already recaptured the French territories in North Africa in November 1942. Tunisia fell into their hands in May 1943, at the time of my arrival in Germany. I resolved to find out more!

After a few furtive attempts at turning on the radio in the empty guest rooms, I began to search in earnest for the news from London. I was soon rewarded with the familiar 'pum, pum, pum.' I carefully noted the times of transmissions in Polish, French, or German because my English was practically non-existent at that stage.

Since I had to keep moving from room to room, I ended up listening to all the available radios. As I grew bolder, I began to synchronize the time on the guests' clocks according to London news broadcasts. In this way I ensured that I did not miss anything of import. In spite of - or because of - the danger, I felt increasingly committed to this most exciting new activity. I knew that even our German masters were forbidden to avail themselves of enemy sources of information.

I was learning fast about the increasing German defeats on all fronts. At first I shared my secret only with the sisters.

By the summer 1943, our trio welcomed Henia, another Jewish-Polish girl. She was sent to Frau Hagemann with some medication by the only pharmacy in town, where she was employed. With her fair hair and seemingly Slavic features, one could have mistaken her for a real Pole. She appeared to be the same age as S. She spoke the melodious Galician Polish of an educated person.

The Cheffin allowed her to have an occasional lunch with us in the kitchen. She was delighted with our more liberal rations. Working for the chemist, she resigned herself to a starvation diet. After a brief conversation, we discovered that she came from a Polish country town in the vicinity of Lvov. Before escaping to Germany, fearing for her small daughter's safety, she left the child in a local convent in the care of nuns. At the pharmacy she maintained very friendly relations with her co-worker Vera, a Czech girl. We resolved over lunch to keep in touch whenever possible. Thus Henia became our first outside contact with the extensive foreign workforce world of K.D.F. Stadt.

At that time also I learned from the London broadcasts about Mussolini's downfall in July 1943.That fact, incidentally, was reported by Goebbels in the Volkischer Beobachter, as 'Duce's resignation due to illness’.

Infrequently we had a break on Sunday, but this depended entirely on Frau Hagemann's good will. Generally each of us was entitled to every third Sunday afternoon off. On the in-between Sunday afternoons we could go outside out at a time for a short while. To remind us that we were officially on duty, we had to keep our embroidered Sunday aprons tied over our ordinary afternoon aprons.

We were wholly unaccustomed to those afternoon forays of pure leisure outside of the hotel. They often brought us wonderful surprises. The Nazis considered the Poles and the Russians to be a lower form of life. But the French, Belgian and Czech labourers were free to roam the streets of the town on Sunday afternoons. They did not have to wear any distinguishing letters on their clothing to mark their nationality. Some of them even ventured into our bar.

I was then twenty years old!

For once, I remember feeling ebullient in anticipation of new developments. I perceived for the first time that maybe a new light was beginning to flicker for us at the end of the tunnel.


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