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All That Was: Chapter Thirty-Three - Memorable Days

"A total transformation of K.D.F. Stadt happened before our very eyes. Gone were the regimented, goose-stepping Germans in their green fatigues and heavy black jackboots. In their place American servicemen, clad in light khaki and stylish laced-up brown boots, were parading in the streets to the tunes of Broadway hits. Members of their Military Police with 'M' inscribed on their helmets were making futile attempts at curbing our unstoppable exuberance...''

In this wonderful and profoundly moving chapter of her life story Lusia Przybyszewicz describes her experiences during the confused, chaotic, jubilant days when she again experienced freedom as the war moved towards its end.

Lusia's unforgettable book All That Was can be obtained from her at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

Propelled by this newly found taste of freedom, our frenzy continued unabated well into the night. I was amongst friends, in the balmy spring air. The whole wide world lay at our feet. We sang, we danced, we hugged, and we wept. Distant sounds of machine gun fire, as well as frequent power cuts, kept reminding us that out yonder the war was not quite over yet. But we no longer cared.

At daybreak all the foreign workers' camps disgorged their former inmates out into the open. Everyone was drunk with excitement. The unruly throngs set off for the town, screaming and shouting victory in many languages. The Russians outperformed everybody.

A total transformation of K.D.F. Stadt happened before our very eyes. Gone were the regimented, goose-stepping Germans in their green fatigues and heavy black jackboots. In their place American servicemen, clad in light khaki and stylish laced-up brown boots, were parading in the streets to the tunes of Broadway hits. Members of their Military Police with 'M' inscribed on their helmets were making futile attempts at curbing our unstoppable exuberance.

At checkpoints gum-chewing individual American guards sat at their posts. They carried out their duties with their long limbs sprawled across two chairs, and a rifle loosely swayed from the shoulder. The off-duty soldiers took to playing baseball on the footpaths, drawing the attention of many mesmerized onlookers.

By then, S., Paul, Henia, Henri, Marcel and I were reunited. Oddly enough, R. was still working at the hotel. We had plans under way to get her out of there. Without any rest and with only minimal food intake, we owed our long and unwavering resilience solely to our youth and high spirits. Finally, however, exhilaration and utter exhaustion compelled us to return to camp to get some sleep.

I found my Polish 'mates' in an uproar. Apparently our Russian neighbours, in the name of 'workers of the world united in victory', had torn down the fence, which until then had divided our camps, and invaded our latrines. We had nowhere to relieve ourselves. Scuffles broke out.

When peace was restored in the Stube and I lay on my bunk in pitch dark, I suddenly became aware there were men amongst us. Moans and groans of a certain kind, emanated from everywhere. They left nothing to the imagination. It dawned on me, that the Polish girls, condemned to years of deprivation, were now keen to catch up on lost time. They had the full cooperation of their newly-found American heroes.

Although I was myself young and in love, I must say that this 'en-masse' love-making performance filled me with revulsion. I left the Stube at the crack of dawn, determined to look for some more appealing lodgings in the town.

I knew of a nice, simple wooden cottage in the vicinity of the cinema which used to house a few minor German officials. The catch was that without a permit from the American administration to officially evict the enemy, we had no right to move in.

Because of still more pressing commitments, this project would have to wait for a couple of days. First on my list was the liberation of R. At the outset several of us had volunteered to help the American Military Police in their pursuit of guilty Germans. This would make my task easier.

An American soldier in a jeep drove me and his mate to the 'Am Hochenstein.' In the changed circumstances, the Gaststatte was now brimming with American military personnel. Otherwise everything looked exactly the same as before.

The two Americans came with me into the kitchen. Incredible as it may sound, we found R. at the sink, busy scrubbing a cauldron. I had a tiny Polish flag in my lapel, in place of the 'P'. I faced Frau Hagemann and told her we had come to take R. away. The once proud Cheffin nodded meekly.

R. looked entirely bewildered and even a little scared. She was ignorant of the latest developments, and it appeared she did not comprehend what it was all about. While she went up to pack her belongings, the two Americans wasted no time. They requisitioned the piano as well as the coffer of foreign coins, which in better times Hans had amassed and hidden in the cellar.

R. returned with us in the jeep, to a tumultuous welcome at the French camp. To everyone's delight she was reunited with her sister and her beloved Paul. By this second day of liberation, K.D.F. Stadt was unrecognizable. The Russians, who broke into practically every store in sight, ravaged a toilet paper factory to festoon the town. Against the backdrop of baseball players, long strips of toilet paper fluttered in the breeze from every telegraph wire and lamppost along the streets.

The indulgence of the Military Police gave way to a little strain, only when some particularly unlucky German burghers were seen dropping out of first floor windows on to the pavement. The Russian culprits were told to show a little restraint.

Fortunately, the following day our four couples were free to move into the German cottage. We had to suffer only one more night at the camp.

At the time I did not envisage life without Marcel. With the prospect of spending some time in peace with him in our private quarters, my customary feeling of guilt for concealing my true identity from him, reached its peak. There were no more excuses. With the Allies in control over our destiny, I had nothing to fear on that score. And yet after all that had happened I was still ambivalent, deep down, about making my confession to a non-Jew. For the first time since leaving the Warsaw Ghetto I was about to break out of my self-imposed silence. What a challenge! I was plagued by doubt and by remorse. I pondered long and hard what to do and what to say. In the final analysis I acknowledged to myself that there was no room for secrets between us. I succumbed.

That evening as we were walking back to camp, I invited Marcel to my Stube for a chat. I felt sure the Polish girls would be too involved with their American companions to take any notice of us and therefore would unwittingly accord us complete privacy. I was right.

In the semi-darkness we ignored the others. We drew two chairs into the corner by the door and sat opposite each other. Grateful for the faint light, I haltingly began my tale.

'Marcel, I have something to tell you.'

He cocked his head questioningly, as if he had some disbelief that there could be something that he did not know about me.

'I...I...I'm Jewish.' Tears welled in my eyes. I failed to suppress them and, carried away by my grief, I began to sob openly.

Slowly I proceeded to unravel the tragedy that befell my whole family and most of my best friends. I took Marcel on the painful journey through Lodz, the Warsaw Ghetto, all of the gruesome details of my escape to the Christian side and the subsequent trip to the Reich. The rest he already knew.

[We were yet to learn about the barbarity of the concentration camps and of the gas chambers. In April 1945 we were still blissfully ignorant of such acts of genocide.]

Throughout that night Marcel listened. He was shattered by my account of events. He sought in vain to console me. I would not let him comfort me. Inexplicably, my former reticence to tell my story had vanished. I was out of control, and I let loose the flood of bitter memories that had been locked up for years within me. In the end Marcel, overwrought, also broke down.

By the time I ran out of steam, it was almost dawn. Although we were both tearful, I felt at peace. All my earlier misgivings had been dispelled. We stayed in our secluded corner of the Polish Stube until daybreak. We felt closer than ever to each other. I offered Marcel the rosary the Warsaw priest gave me before my departure for Germany. It served as a memento of a very moving moment in my life.

In retrospect, the remaining days of April 1945 spent at K.D.F. Stadt prior to our repatriation to France were just sublime. Each day brought with it new festivities and merrymaking.

Personally expelling one of the German officials from his modest flatette in the wooden cottage gave me great satisfaction. As he left his room, I threw out after him the portraits of Hitler and those of of the other barbarians that adorned his walls.

As the glass shattered along the corridor, I called after him: 'Dieser Abfall nehmen Sie aber mit' (Pick up your rubbish on the way out). My companions must have acted in a similar fashion.

Very soon that morning our four couples settled in their respective quarters, away at last from the communal camp existence. After years of subjugation we felt euphoric, on top of the world at finding ourselves at home (chez-nous), free to do as we pleased. Nothing will ever erase that sense of fulfillment from my memory.

The Americans had gradually restored the modest food supplies. Now we could even prepare our own real meals in our kitchen - another wonderful sensation. In fact I can think of no other period of my life when I appreciated more all of life's simple pleasures.

On the first Friday in our new abode S. prepared the Polish-Jewish version of the traditional Sabbath carp. Where she got the ingredients I do not know. The taste and smell of the fish took me back to my childhood in Lodz and to our Friday night rituals. The experience was overwhelming.

We invited a few American servicemen to join us for this gala dinner. They had not enjoyed a home-cooked dinner for some months. Thrilled by the opportunity, they supplied the wine. Everyone loved the unusual dish, but the significance of it was known only to the four 'Polish' girls. I eventually enlightened Marcel on the significance of the meal and what it meant to me.

The next historical moment came with R.'s wedding. Her Paul proposed marriage as soon as she was 'liberated' from the hotel, and she accepted. We decided to hold the festivities in Mrs Hagemann's sanctuary, right there in the very Gaststatte we had cleaned and scrubbed for so long.

We all turned up in the afternoon in our Sunday best at the familiar Arndt Strasse. An American official performed a civil ceremony in the function room. Even though, for obvious reasons, the traditional canopy was missing from the ceremony, this shortcoming in no way dissuaded S. from crushing a glass underfoot and calling out Mazeltov. To carry out the ancient rite, she hid behind the door. I was the only witness.

The formalities over, we all sat down with the happy couple at a restaurant table and ordered afternoon tea. Giesela served us. She also informed us that Hans was listed as missing on the Eastern front. None of us shed any tears at the news. To the general applause, S. rather nonchalantly lit a match and set alight a valueless Reichmark bank note. Just before the flame consumed the note, she used it to light her cigarette.

Our departure from Germany to the West was scheduled for early May. The Russians and the majority of Poles were to head east about the same time. This unique and very special occasion called for an international ball, the preparations for which, considering the times, were on a grand scale.

We ordered the German inhabitants to clear the cinema hall of all the chairs and to polish the floor with stearin for dancing. We assembled an orchestra from amongst the foreign musicians, and we supplied them with instruments confiscated from the locals. The piano came from the hotel.

On the day of the celebration, crowds of cheering, enraptured revelers invaded the place. We had decorated the hall with makeshift flags of all of the liberated nations. The ambiance was magical. Members of our orchestra took their places on the stage. When they were ready to begin, we all took our positions on the overcrowded dance floor.

At that very moment, a group of stalwart Russians clambered up onto the stage, carrying a giant framed replica of Stalin. They propped it up against the wall. A cacophony of whistles and stamping of feet arose from the dance floor. Everyone was outraged. The Soviet stooges were undeterred. They left the likeness of their infamous leader in their chosen spot and rejoined us down below.

Thus, under the watchful eye of the Soviet dictator, the ball began in earnest. The orchestra struck the first chord. Spellbound, we all began to dance to the pre-war tunes long since forgotten. After years of abstinence, tango, fox-trot, waltz and 'the boston' came once again into their own. It did not matter that we could barely move, without bumping into each other - the togetherness felt divine.

Then, unexpectedly, the orchestra struck a lively mazurka. The tune sent all the Slavs in our midst absolutely wild. As they took over the dance floor, jumping and kicking their feet in the traditional manner, the skill and vigour they displayed were phenomenal. The rest of us formed a huge circle around the performers. We clapped our hands in unison, rousing the dancers' fervour to even greater heights.

Suddenly: Bang! The vibration of the floor boards must have thrown the great Stalin off balance. The portrait fell face down onto the stage floor. The hall resounded with a great roar of laughter and a tumultuous cheer. Stalin's collapse was a grand finale to a memorable day!


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