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All That Was: Chapter Thirty-One - Real Trouble

'On Sunday afternoon,' he continued, 'during an inspection one of our officers discovered a foul-smelling tray of cooked meat morsels on top of the cupboard in the canteen. It must have been left there for sometime. As you are the person in charge of the canteen, it is obvious that you placed the tray there. We hold you completely responsible for this action.'

Lusia Przybyszewicz is summoned to the police station to answer questions. Although no action was taken against her, in order to feel more secure in case the Nazi authorities discover that she is Jewish, Lusia inserts a cyanide capsule into the hem of her working skirt.

Lusia's book All That Was, an uplifiting account of living through the darkest days in human history, is available from her at PO 404, Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

Real trouble struck after one of my Sundays off, sometime in March 1945. I was lying on my bunk, relaxing happily away from all the daily burdens. Out of the blue Wacek came into the Stube, called me out and informed me that the following day, I had to report to the Criminal Police (Kriminal Polizei) Headquarters; some irregularities had occurred at the canteen. My mind went blank at his announcement. At the same time, aware that our conversation could be overheard by someone who wished me ill I did my best to appear calm and collected.

There was no one around in whom I could confide - no one from whom I could seek advice. I lay on my bunk thinking my way through the dilemma. Because I had committed so many transgressions, I could not fathom which breach of regulations the Germans had in mind. Nonetheless, I felt comforted by the thought that a summons to the Gestapo would have been far more dangerous.

After a miserable night I set out in the morning for my appointment with the police. I felt anxious but resigned. Even after all these years the experience is still indelibly etched in my mind.

On arrival at the Police Headquarters I was ushered into the office. The police officer shot his arm upward in the customary salute.

'Heil Hitler,' he shouted.

'Heil Hitler,' I replied, with as much vigour to my salute as I could manage.

He sat down. I remained standing. He glared at me with unblinking eyes. '(He has already pronounced sentence on me),' I thought to myself.

'Christa, (uttering the contemptible 'du') you have committed a most grievous offense.' He folded his hands and paused.

My mind raced through all the things I had done, and I wondered on which of them he would land.

'On Sunday afternoon,' he continued, 'during an inspection one of our officers discovered a foul-smelling tray of cooked meat morsels on top of the cupboard in the canteen. It must have been left there for sometime. As you are the person in charge of the canteen, it is obvious that you placed the tray there. We hold you completely responsible for this action.'

I was stunned. They accused me of an act of sabotage for which I could be held responsible. The charge seemed serious, especially since it related to the precious meat rations.

As I listened to the officer's indictment, I instantaneously remembered that I, myself, had placed the tray in that remote location during Saturday's lunch-break. I had intended to deal with it later. In the general rush I must have forgotten about it. Now, I was confronted with the frightening consequences of such a serious act of insubordination. I knew that under no circumstances must I own up to the crime; that was unthinkable!

The officer rose from his seat and walked slowly around the desk. He sat down on the edge of the desk, looked at me accusingly, and folded his fingers together. He was ready to strike.

'Do you know what the penalty is for such an offence? Do you know how serious this is?', he asked.

'Yes,' I replied softly.

'What do you have to say for yourself?'

I looked him straight in the eye. 'I cannot believe that this could happen.' I began my defense. 'I am horrified that anyone in my canteen would have the audacity to commit such a dastardly act. Not only is such an action illegal, but also unethical.'

I paused to see if I had made a dent in his armour. He looked away as if to ponder my response.

'I am absolutely certain that there was no such tray on the cupboard when I left the canteen,' I continued. 'I cannot explain how the tray ended up on the cupboard. It sounds very much like an act of disobedience. Someone must have placed it there after I departed for the Polish camp. Perhaps it was left there during the plumbing operations carried out later in the day.'

I paused again and watched the officer's face slowly turn from an expression of indicting anger to reflect the slightest hint of doubt. I leapt on the chance. I even raised my voice a little bit.

'How could anyone possibly commit such a terrible deed, especially when we all know that meat rations are in such short supply! I can only assure you that I will deal with this immediately on my return to the canteen.' '( That is, if I can get out of here and back to the canteen),'I thought to myself.

The officer stood up from the desk and walked toward me. He towered over me. He folded his arms and glared at me.

'I will be lenient with you this time,' he said. 'I will allow you to return to your work. However, be warned : if any such breach occurs again, you will be dealt with most severely. Dismissed.'

I was overwhelmed with relief, but I dared not show it.

'Heil Hitler,' he shouted.

'Heil Hitler, ' I returned. And I backed away and turned around only as I reached the door.

Of course, I was very shaken by this experience. Even at that late stage of the war, I was reminded, yet again, how vulnerable my position remained. In order to feel more secure after this close shave, I inserted the cyanide capsule provided by Henia into the hem of my working skirt.

The warmer April weather brought with it news, that more than 300,000 German soldiers had been taken prisoner in the Ruhr Gebiet, the industrial heart of the Reich. Before long the Allies would be on their way towards the river Elbe, and the Russians would be setting their eyes on Berlin.

Meanwhile back in the Polish camp, from the middle of March onwards things were not at all rosy. The news of my incident with the police spread, and it gained me uncalled-for notoriety. Women took to whispering when I was about. I felt uneasy all the time. Then, about a week after the meat episode, Wacek entered the Stube on his regular inspection tour. Suddenly, he turned to me. No one else was around.

He spoke to me with a sly smile on his face. 'Guess what! Rumours have it that you are Jewish.'

I was always mindful of the prevailing ethos in the polish camp. For some time I had dreaded but half expected such an accusation. I was terribly frustrated. Bluff seemed the only weapon left.

I looked straight at him and I burst out laughing .

'What a coincidence! I heard exactly the same rumour about you!', I said.

His face turned purple, and he walked away slightly deflated. I remained convinced, there could never be any real truce between us.

At this critical time fate must have intervened. The following day I came across an ally, who I knew at once could be trusted unreservedly. At lunch hour a French prisoner of war, probably in his thirties, walked into the canteen. He turned to face me. The prisoner's worn-out khaki French army overcoat hung loosely over his small frame. He wore a matching forage cap.

'(He is Jewish !),'I thought to myself. His prominent features, together with his dark melancholy, inquiring eyes, betrayed at once not only his Semitic origins, but also his thoughts, '(She is Jewish)!'

Curiously, our mutual understanding came about without any exchange of words whatsoever. Fortunately for him, I thought to myself, under the Geneva Convention his Jewishness had to go unpunished.

For a few days we watched each other across the canteen. At one point I ventured a slight smile. To my pleasant surprise, he returned my overture with a smile and a nod of his head. Another day or so passed. I decided to make contact.

Jojo came into the canteen for his regular meal. As he held out his pennikin to me for his soup ration, I ventured, 'Bonjour Monsieur'. His face lit up. 'Je m'appelle Christine'.

'Jojo' .

'Salut, Jojo. D'ou venez-vous?( Where are you from?)'

'Before the war I lived in Paris. I was an upholsterer. I was recruited into the French army in 1939, and have not seen my home since. I had to leave my beloved wife behind.'

'How did you end up here?'

'I was captured, together with my unit, in the early phases of the so called Blitz Krieg. I have spent all these years in prisoner of war camps, and as a Jew I was forced to work in the quarries.'

'Do you get news of your wife?'

'No, I haven't heard from her for a long time. It is wearing terribly on me. I'm afraid she has run off with another man, and that fear constantly prays on my mind. It happens a lot, you know. Some of my mates at the camp had such an experience.'

As the days went by, we had many conversations. I could read in his eyes, how much his yearning and mounting apprehension were wearing him down. It was obvious that he found relief confiding in me. He said I was the only person in the whole of Germany he felt he could trust. I treasured just as much the precious moments I spent with Jojo, because our truth did not have to be censored. Before long Jojo shared his greatest secret with me.

'Since the end of 1944,' he began, 'I have been in touch with a group of young Jewish Hungarian women. They were forcibly deported from their homeland, when the Germans invaded. They were taken to one of the bunkers under the Volkswagenwerk factory. They live there in terrible conditions. There is very little light where they are, and they are completely isolated. They are doing some manual labour. I am their only contact with the outside world. They write me letters in Hebrew. I hide the notes they give me in the cuff of my overcoat.'

At propitious moments, he translated them for me into French.

Smuggling news and, above all, food to that bunker was an almost impossible task. On occasions I managed to sidetrack a few special rations for Jojo, who ran his own network for distribution. I believe he enlisted the cooperation of a few decent German guards who had been chosen from amongst the unfit for active service members of the Wehrmacht.

Although Marcel met Jojo, we did not tell Marcel of this highly sensitive operation until the end. By then, we discovered with horror, that all of Jojo's valiant endeavours were in vain. Just before the Allies' armoured tanks rolled into K.D.F. Stadt the Nazis dragged the Hungarian women out of their bunker to some deserted field and executed them all.

As Briant Gilbert said of Oscar Wilde's life, the rest of us continued 'skirting the abyss till the end.'


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