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All That Was: Chapter Twenty-One - Cold Labour

…My other grave responsibility was to maintain Hitler's portrait on the wall in its immaculate condition. Here I found an outlet for my contempt. As I stood on my ladder, whenever possible I would spit at the glass protecting the hated visage before rubbing it with one of my dusters…

Lusia Przybyszewicz and her Polish compatriots, drafted in wartime to work as slaves in a German hotel, resist the Nazis in every possible way.

With an accumulation of details and a vivid writing style, Lusia conveys the constant tensions of being Jewish in fearful times.

Lusia’s wonderful book All That Was is available from PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Australian, plus postage).

The shopping expeditions with my cart became potentially perilous, especially during blizzards. No shelter of any kind could be found in the streets. The wooden soles of my working boots were very slippery, and my hands practically frozen as they gripped the wooden handle.

As Weihnachten (Christmas) ’43 was approaching, the numbers of servicemen on leave increased enormously. Our hotel and restaurant were bursting at the seams. Many private functions, especially weddings, were held in the banquet room late into the night. The formidable din produced by the singing and shouting of the drunken members of the Wehrmacht, exacerbated by piano accompaniment, kept us all awake. On a few occasions I was requested to come down well after midnight to clean up someone's vomit.

My other grave responsibility was to maintain Hitler's portrait on the wall in its immaculate condition. Here I found an outlet for my contempt. As I stood on my ladder, whenever possible I would spit at the glass protecting the hated visage before rubbing it with one of my dusters.

Frau Hagemann's preparations for the end of year festivities had a direct impact on my already considerable workload. In her fervour to render her establishment sparkling clean for the occasion, she ordered me to wash and burnish every single thick glass component of the heavy chandeliers in the restaurant. This was a mammoth task.

Given my small frame, I could only tackle this new imposition perched at the top of the ladder with the bucket of soapy water suspended from a hook embedded in the woodwork by my side. I felt a bit like a trapeze artist. Although I found the job scary and very tiring, I slogged along the best I could.
On one occasion, after some hours of strenuous effort, my concentration must have wavered. Before I knew it one whole crystal lamp shade fell to the floor with a bang, sending bits of shattered glass all over the place. The Cheffin instantaneously appeared in the doorway; she was beside herself with rage.
If she had accused me of sabotage, I would at best have ended up in a labour camp. That such punishments were often given to the Auslander (foreigners) was common knowledge. Fortunately, she just raved for a bit, scandalized by my carelessness. To her, the loss of the light shade was unforgivable, she said. She stressed that because of the war any such articles were irreplaceable. I apologized very humbly and asked for her forgiveness. After that little incident life went on as before.

That evening, back in the safety of our room, we held our usual private war council. We went back over the days'
events, and in particular we discussed my mishap. The wondrous notion that whatever was broken in the hotel could not be replaced became the crux of our deliberations. Our wicked minds focused on a new can of worms we could possibly unleash upon our captors.

We knew there was an enormous scope for breaking things, especially in the kitchen. We decided that by exercising caution we could, unobtrusively, yet quite deliberately, cause a great deal of damage to the place - a worthy objective to pursue in this mighty struggle. In our attitude to the Germans scruples had no place whatsoever in our thinking. Nevertheless, to reduce any chance of being caught, we put on hold our devious plans until Christmas 1943 festivities were over.

Frau Hagemann's old parents were the first guests to arrive for Christmas. Throughout the holiday period they stayed in their daughter's quarters. They came from the vicinity of Hamburg, and they found the hotel a welcome respite from the unrelenting air raids.

Retired at last, they had been managing their own bakery for most of their working life. I learned from the mother that in their childhood both sisters, Klara, our Cheffin, and Agnes, helped at the bakery before and after school. It became quite obvious to me from where their work ethic derived. The old lady took a great liking to me. In our conversations, she expressed her anti-Nazi sentiments with vehemence. She felt deeply ashamed for what was happening, even though I got the impression that she did not know much about the real horrors perpetrated by the regime.

The last, and to us the least desirable, newcomer was our Cheffin's husband, Hans Hagemann. We were expecting his visit for sometime with an understandable apprehension. In
anticipation of his arrival Frau Hagemann taught me in the privacy of her own apartment how to iron his brown shirts. However repugnant the task was, it did introduce me for the first time in my life to the art of ironing men's shirts.
For some time the three of us endeavoured to prepare ourselves mentally for that dreaded yet unavoidable encounter. With her pronounced Semitic features and her Yiddish riddled German, S. had the most to fear from the exposure. To avert any pitfalls we cautioned her to refrain from looking directly at him or from uttering any German words in his presence.
He arrived straight from his posting in Poland. We guessed that he might perhaps have participated in the 'Final Solution to the Jewish Question,' and therefore he might be able to identify the Yiddish accent. The Cheffin and the other girls had already on occasion remarked how strange S.'s German was. I still recall how S. used the Yiddish term 'zigebrent' for 'burnt' (generally in relation to pots and pans) instead of the German 'verbrannt'. In our particular situation this made me cringe. At such times I hastened to explain to the German staff that it was a special dialect she picked up as a child in a remote part of Poland.

On the fateful day the master came into the kitchen on his tour of inspection still in his SS uniform, a sight which the three of us knew only too well. No wonder he sent a chill down our spines! He seemed to be about his wife's age and shared her fair complexion. He confronted us with his rigid, typically Germanic face and cold blue eyes.

We were compelled to exchange 'Heil Hitler' with him. He looked at us with the familiar disdain and reminded us we were there to work hard at all times. He promised to tolerate no nonsense.

As usual S. concentrated on peeling potatoes to fill up Wienfried’s bathtub. According to our advice, she tried not to look at him. She stared directly at the tub and appeared very pale.

Luckily Wienfried’s thin voice calling ‘Vati’ (daddy) helped to reduce the incredible tension. Hans turned round and went out of the door to join his son.


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