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All That Was: Chapter Twenty-Three - Renewed Confidence

…The German media admitted few of the Wehrmacht's many defeats or the devastating allied bombing on many military and civilian targets throughout the Reich. In spite of such omissions, the general lowering of morale became increasingly evident everywhere as the winter gave way to spring 1944. Our guests often spoke amongst themselves of their uncertainty about the future. Soldiers on leave, their tongues loosened by drink, often revealed more than they should have…

Lusia Przybyszewicz and her Polish companions, enforced to slave in a German hotel, become increasingly confident that Germany is losing the war.

Lusia’s detailed and wonderfully well-written life story, All That Was, is available from her at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia (($25 Australian plus postage).

In the course of that very winter (1943/44) S. asked me whether I could assist her in improving her French expression. Considering the very limited time we had available, we agreed to put aside an hour each evening for tuition. In return S. promised to darn my socks or carry out any other repairs to my worn-out clothing during our 'classes.' Because I had no aptitude for sewing of any kind, this exchange of skills suited me fine.

Although the idea seemed good at first, it did not work very well in practice. The arrangement proved to be a very uneven exchange. S. lovingly restored all my tired gear, but in all this time she managed to learn only the most basic French dialogue. Further sessions had to be axed.

Suddenly Christmas 1943 was upon us.

The Hagemanns were professed devout Catholics, and they took the festival very seriously. There was a Christmas tree in their private quarters and some decorations in the Gaststatte.

I do not recall whether the family went to church on that day, nor do I recollect having ever seen a church at K.D.F. Stadt. Maybe they just prayed to their Fuhrer. Importantly for us some of that Christian spirit rubbed off on their three Polinen. We were given a little time off and had a special though modest feast in the kitchen. In the evening, we were invited into their 'inner sanctum', to be given our Christmas presents.

We queued behind the German staff until each of us came before Hans, shook his hand, and graciously accepted the gift. All the members of their clan were seated around a table at which the SS-man presided. As each present was handed out the audience clapped.

For us the strain of this ordeal, coming so soon after our earlier encounter with Hans in the kitchen, was immeasurable. As I smiled gratefully at my master, I watched S. out of the corner of my eye. I prayed that she would not pass out in his presence.

With that performance safely over, we were bracing ourselves for the imminent Silvester Nacht, New Year's Eve 1943/44, at the hotel. It came with a bang!

Hordes of servicemen in a profusion of Nazi uniforms, all festooned with swastikas, invaded the bar. Agnes, Giesela and Maria worked frantically at the counter taking and delivering orders of 'helles' (clear) or 'dunkeles'(dark) beer, as the case might be. The sound of the frothy fluid gushing from the taps was inescapable, even in the kitchen.

Gallons of beer must have been consumed that night as the guests tried to drown their sorrows and foreboding about the future before wishing each other Happy New Year as midnight struck. To the ones who did not reach a complete state of stupor the good wishes must have had a hollow sound indeed.

Be it as it may, in the packed restaurant the blend of music via the radio loudspeakers, screams, laughter, singing at the piano, created an insufferable racket that continued unabated throughout the night. The intermittent bouts of vomiting went almost unnoticed, except for Christa who was on call to clean up the mess.

Up in the privacy of our room the three of us held our own small private celebration. On all grounds we had cause to be in high spirits. We reached January 1944 in relative safety and we faced the future with renewed confidence.

The Italian battle front was then focussed on Casino, where some French divisions together with the famous Polish corps under the command of Gen. Anders were in action trying to help the Allied armies to land at Anzio.

Meanwhile, of our immediate concern was the delayed departure of the hated SS boss from our midst. To our dismay he stayed on at the hotel for another week or so to do odd jobs around the place. All the local tradesmen, enlisted in the Wehrmacht, went to war. His unwelcome presence left poor S. in a quandary for a bit longer. Frau Hagemann's parents left for home.

After all the flurry, life was slowly returning to normal, when my peace of mind came to be shattered yet again by a new extraordinary incident. Unexpectedly during my cleaning routines one morning Hans called out to me from the cellar. I was to come down at once. My heart sank.

Though filled with apprehension, down I went. In semi darkness I found the boss in the potato cellar in his working outfit leaning on a heavy pitchfork. The room was very cold, damp, and musty smelling. Diffused daylight came through two small openings, located beneath the low set ceiling. They were there to facilitate a smooth delivery of goods from the street level.

Hans told me to pick up a spare pitchfork and help him shift the huge pile of potatoes from one corner of the cellar to another. He explained that the job had to be done periodically to prevent the potatoes from freezing and rotting. I felt relieved. Apart from the fact that the pitchfork seemed far too large for me and that my hands felt numb, everything was fine.

We worked for a very long time in complete silence, broken only by the sound of potatoes being tossed to the ground. Suddenly I caught sight of a mouse scurrying in the shadows by the wall. Seized instantaneously by a terror that knew no bounds, I crouched amongst the potatoes to hide from the mouse and shrieked: 'Eine Mous!' Clearly, at that moment I must have felt incapable of giving any thought to the likely repercussions for my outburst. Hans lurched forward and killed the mouse with one blow of his pitchfork. I was quite hysterical, expecting his second blow to land on my head.

For an instant we faced each other. Hans looked at me more in amazement than in contempt. Eventually he broke into laughter. The tension gave way to my huge embarrassment. No words were exchanged, and we resumed working.

Soon after the episode with the mouse, Hans left us, to resume his duties with Waffen SS. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

By then, the three of us were old hands at dealing with the German womenfolk around us. Besides, our common workload grew so heavy with the enormous influx of guests throughout that winter that no one in authority found time to closely supervise us.

We naturally took every possible advantage of that new laxity. It gave us time to thoroughly examine the entire content of the cellar and of Frau Hagemann's private quarters. Cigarettes, unobtainable by lawful means, and which our French customers craved, were our main target. Even our masters' supplies were strictly rationed and obtained only upon presentation of special coupons. To our great relief, after a thorough search we eventually discovered a cubicle in the cellar packed with large cartons of cigarettes.

We deliberated at length how best to dispose of some of the consignment, without arousing suspicion. We reasoned that it would be too noticeable if we were to open a carton and remove some packets from it. The best way to go, we decided, was to remove a few intact cartons from time to time. The project required considerable ingenuity, but we gradually worked out a foolproof plan of action.

We chose the time of day when everyone was busy elsewhere. While I did the deed, S. and R. positioned themselves strategically on watch along the staircase. In case of the slightest emergency they would whistle the tune of the first few bars of the Marseillaise so as to give me plenty of warning.

Our thieving ventures were modest, very well controlled, and undeniably successful. The cartons of cigarettes became the regular currency we used on the black market in exchange for other goods .

Our most successful barter involved a batch of raw white wool, procured by devious means at the Hamburg wharves and conveyed to our French friends, who in their turn put it at our disposal. Such merchandise was quite unique during the war years and, therefore, priceless.

Due to its provenance it would have been dangerous to keep the rough commodity in our possession for any length of time. It had to be converted into garments as a matter of urgency. The only hitch was, that none of us could knit. With many misgivings we decided to take a gamble and approach Giesela. After all, she looked to be the least threatening amongst her peers.

S. and I came to see her with well rehearsed explanations to counter any queries she might have had. But there was no need! So bedazzled was the young waitress by the very sight of real wool that, to our great relief, she did not question us at all. We offered her the consignment at a very low price on condition that she would knit sweaters for the three of us as well as for herself and her mates.

Thrilled to bits with her acquisition, Giesela kept her word. Her workmates, equally over the moon at the sight of this godsend, cooperated fully. Nightly knitting sessions were swiftly set up. Within a month or so every member of staff was fitted out with a white, hand-knitted pullover, to guard against the winter chill. My very own, rather prickly woollen garment felt wonderfully snug.

By comparison, our other misdemeanours were on the whole rather insignificant.

Sometimes, we would pinch a little bit of Frau Hagemann's superb herring salad, which I had helped to make. She kept her salad in a jar in her private fridge in the cellar. I have been using the recipe ever since. It is made of pickled herrings minced together with green apples and onion, sour cream and seasonings.

We were also partial to the Cheffin's lovely homemade cookies, hidden from view in a remote corner of her private flat, which R. discovered inside a gigantic tin. At favourable moments R. or I would take out a few biscuits, wrap them up in one of the innumerable dusters we always carried with us, and then throw the lot out the window to give the impression that it had dropped accidentally. We then picked it up and transferred the loot to a safe place, where it could be disposed of at leisure.

The German media admitted few of the Wehrmacht's many defeats or the devastating allied bombing on many military and civilian targets throughout the Reich. In spite of such omissions, the general lowering of morale became increasingly evident everywhere as the winter gave way to spring 1944. Our guests often spoke amongst themselves of their uncertainty about the future. Soldiers on leave, their tongues loosened by drink, often revealed more than they should have. Some wives of those missing in action found it hard to hold back tears when they were addressed.

I eventually came to the conclusion, that Frau Hagemann herself did not have much faith in the ultimate outcome of the war, nor great admiration for her Fuhrer. Her ambivalence was exposed the day she came to the kitchen to show us a medal. It was displayed in a beautifully crafted box, lined with red plush. The Fuhrer had granted it to her husband, presumably for his dutiful service in the Waffen SS (whatever that implied!). The German girls were ecstatic about such an honour, but our Cheffin contrived only a contemptuous smile and dismissed the whole matter as if it were too trivial to dwell on.

With the warmer weather the Allied air raids increased. So also did the march-past parades of smartly turned out military bands in the town. The parades were most likely intended to lift people's spirits. Not only did they march to the familiar goose-step, but they were singing with the music. They created a lot noise in our Arndt Strasse. The following song is a good indication of how they felt about spending so much time away from home:

Urlaub Schein

Urlaub Schein,
Du bist der schonste aller Schine,
Urlaub Schein,
Du bist mein Gliick und meine Freude,
Urlaub Schein,
Warm wirds du wieder sein?
Ich mocht so gern noch Mahl,
Nach Hause wieder gehen,
Meine Liebe wieder sehen.

(The last 3 lines to be repeated.)

The Leave Permit

Leave Permit,
You are the most cherished piece of paper,
Leave Permit,
You are my good fortune and my joy,
Leave Permit,
When will you come again?
I so much wish
to go back home,
to see my loved ones one more time.

In the early spring we also began to see in the streets of K.D.F. Stadt the ever increasing numbers of Badoglio Italian prisoners of war. Their appearance reminded me of the bedraggled and forlorn retreating Polish Army in Lodz, at the outset of this dreadful war. Their uniforms were in tatters and they seemed starved. They were generally put to work on the roads cleaning away the melting snow and sleet. The Germans, even the nice ones, thought of them as traitors and treated them accordingly. The wretches remained isolated from the foreign workforce as well. We were forbidden to communicate with them. The French despised them anyway.

We could often see the Italians working in the vicinity of the Hotel. Whenever an opportunity presented itself, I smuggled out some food to them. Otherwise they had to share the scraps that were destined for Ano. Their situation was pitiful!

With the advent of warmer weather, our social life gained pace. The two sisters and I were allowed out in the evenings after work, but only one at a time. Our curfew extended till about 10:00 p.m. The boys picked us up outside the hotel and escorted us back.

Marcel and I used to walk along the usually deserted streets. Occasionally we hazarded a visit to the only cinema in town. I used to hide my 'P,' aware that Poles were officially not allowed in the cinema. Without exception the films were atrocious and full of the most heinous propaganda. I remember the heartbreaking distortion of the famous novel 'Jew Suss,' by Lion Feuchtwanger. It followed the newsreel of some glorious Nazi victories over the Allies.

Still, like so many other couples who had nowhere else to go, we felt cosy together in the dark hall.

Before Marcel made his way back to the French camp, and provided there was no one around, we said our farewells in the small lobby of the hotel. This prolonged leave-taking was the highlight of our evenings together.


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