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All That Was: Chapter Forty - Family And New Friends

...As I turned the door key to enter the dinghy room, a man tried to follow me in. He put his foot in the doorway. He was Algerian - many Algerians lived in the area. As there was no one around to help me, I had to use all of my strength to push him out of the door. For a while he kept his foot on the threshold. I kept kicking it until it slid out, and I was able to slam the door shut...

Back in Paris, having parted from her boyfriend, Lusia Przybyszewicz has great difficulty in finding a suitable room of her own.

Lusia's autobiography, All That Was, is a vivid account of the horrors experienced by Jewish people under the Nazi regime, and of her struggle to build a new life when the war was over.

The book is available from Lusia at PO 404, Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

The capital was bulging with refugees from everywhere. They were all in search of the most basic necessities of life. I found myself back where I started. Mrs Taub's situation remained so precarious that I could not count on her help either.

Once again I had to struggle to keep body and soul together, counting solely on my own ingenuity. On the positive side those endeavours had the salutary effect of temporarily blunting my pain.

The Jewish Joint directed me to a hostel in the rue des Rosiers. It is located in the Jewish Quarter of the old city of Paris, called le Marais. I was allotted a bed in a large female dormitory, which was packed for the most part with exhausted, bedraggled new arrivals. It was a sort of holding place where those who came from the dead were now awaiting some miracle that might resurrect them. Meanwhile, before they became eligible for emigration to some desirable destinations, they were all on Joint's keep. They were sustained by the meagre meals in the Joint refectories. I joined the throngs.

Simultaneously I began a search, through the Red Cross, for my relatives in Palestine. I discovered that my favourite uncle, Ludwik Boruchowicz, had quit the defeated Polish Army in Bucharest. After his unhappy encounter with my uncle Joseph's wife, Renee (who lived there with her husband and son at the beginning of the war), somehow, Ludwik had made his way to Tel Aviv. We began to correspond, conscious of the fact that we were the only two survivors of the entire Przybyszewicz clan in Poland.

It was my dreaded duty to explain to Ludwik the circumstances of the tragic demise of the two people closest to his heart: his wife, aunt Bela, and his beloved only son and my brilliant little cousin, Stefanek. They had both perished in the Warsaw Ghetto.

As I mentioned earlier, my uncle had all the necessary papers ready to secure a safe passage out of Poland for his family, but he failed at the last moment because of the Nazi invasion of Rumania.

Upon receiving my news, he remained inconsolable. His letters, written in the most exquisite Polish, were full of despair. (They are, of course, still amongst my memorabilia.) He felt entirely lost all alone in Tel Aviv, just as I did in Paris. Writing to each other helped a lot.

As soon as I revealed to him in one of my letters that my gums were bleeding at times, he instantly sent me a medical preparation to counter the problem. Soon afterwards I received the most splendid brown camel hair overcoat from him. His gift was so timely that I could not thank him enough.

[Eventually, while Ludwik was still in Tel Aviv, he married a widow whose family had emigrated to Canada. He lived with her at Bograshov Street right by the sea. Our correspondence continued until 1961. By then I was settled with my own family on the Redcliffe Peninsula in Queensland, Australia, from where I also re-established contact with my mother's relatives in Tel Aviv. Time was now ripe for a post-war family reunion.

Christmas 1961 offered me the best opportunity to travel to Israel with my two children. Our first journey overseas from Australia. Meeting so many loving cousins all at once was overwhelming. My uncle, Stasiek Fragman and his wife, aunt Eva, were our hosts.

Within days of our arrival, I went with my children to seek out Ludwik. To my horror, I found the traditional obituary notices posted on the walls of the building. They announced Ludwik's death a day or two earlier. As I ponder over his tragic fate, I feel sick at heart. I eventually learned from his widow that he died suddenly of a heart attack while she was visiting her children in Canada.]

Back to la rue des Rosiers.

One lunchtime, sometime in November 1945, I was sitting at the table in the canteen next to a young man. Sickened by the sight of the dirty spoon, with which I was expected to lap up my soup, I burst into the kitchen to complain about it to the cook. In response, he grabbed me by the collar of my dress and unceremoniously, threw me out.

The young man rose from his chair and confronted the cook on my behalf. Though his intervention made little difference to the outcome, I was grateful to a friend in need. We began to chat, and we soon discovered he was a cousin of my very first Lodz school friend, Olenka. She was the lucky girl who emigrated to the USA before the Nazi onslaught. The young man's name was Michael.

From the moment we met, he treated me like a sister. I learned that he was an orphan who had been living in Paris since before the war. He had been adopted by a wealthy uncle, with whom at times he did not get on very well. In the meantime he had grown very fond of an exceptionally hospitable German Jewish family, who, before the war, migrated to Paris from Frankfurt am Mein. They welcomed him with open arms into the fold. He felt that it was presently my turn to meet them. That is how I came to know the Hepners and subsequently to love them.

The family lived in Boulogne in a two-storey mansion which opened onto a secluded garden at the back. The whole property was surrounded by high masonry walls. Though located only a short walk from the Bois de Boulogne, it was barely visible from the street. For me, because of its isolation and a very special ambiance, it exuded an aura of homeliness and intimacy. Apart from the parents and their three children, the house was always full of visitors.

Ruth, the fourth and the eldest child, lived in Buenos Aires. Together with her husband, Symche, they managed a successful Jewish puppet theatre there.

A young man called Martin, Michael's best mate, was another permanent lodger in the Hepner household. He was the son of some emigre friends of the Hepners, domiciled in Brussels.

It was apparent to me from the outset, that the family ran an open house, allowing many needy Jewish young people to come and go as they pleased. Everyone was always warmly received by the lady of the house, Muttilein, as she was commonly called.

On Sundays the household was especially busy. After a hearty lunch (strictly kosher because of Papa's expectations), we all settled down in the sitting room in a semi-circle in front of a large old-fashioned radio set. We listened to the Sunday classical music broadcasts.

The audience invariably included the family's eldest son Eli, who was then in his late twenties, and the twins, Marianne and Georges, who were a little younger than I. I also met there my Parisian friend Laure, who used to teach Michael French in the 1930s.

Every so often, Muttilein, the perfect hostess, bobbed up from her chair to do her rounds, with homemade cookies and nibbles of all sorts. Other than that, no one stirred or made a sound. We stayed engrossed in the heavenly music. Even now the memory of those precious Sunday afternoons at the Hepners warms my heart.

Still besotted with Marcel and missing him terribly, I strove nonetheless to overcome the obsession and get on with my life. Of primary concern was finding a place to live, away from the soul-destroying rue des Rosiers. The task was compounded by my very meager resources.

The kind of cheap hotels that I encountered in my search are all beyond description. The standard ranged from terrible to abysmal. Two appalling experiences from that period are worth recounting.

One time I tried a run-down place at Menilmontant, not far from Mrs Taub's quarters. The person at reception sent me to one of the downstairs rooms at the back of the establishment. One could access it only from a poorly lit open courtyard.

As I turned the door key to enter the dinghy room, a man tried to follow me in. He put his foot in the doorway. He was Algerian - many Algerians lived in the area. As there was no one around to help me, I had to use all of my strength to push him out of the door. For a while he kept his foot on the threshold. I kept kicking it until it slid out, and I was able to slam the door shut.

The bed was in a filthy state. I spent my only night in that room curled up on the bedspread. The other 'facility,' hidden under the bed, was a chamber pot.

After that scary experience, I decided to seek shelter in the relative safety of the Latin Quarter.

One day someone advised me that a hotel nearby had just been renovated and had vacancies. I charged forth instantaneously. Seeing that the building looked respectable from the outside, I did not pay much attention to men staring out of several windows.

On the inside the freshly painted building made a good impression. Furthermore, the room looked clean. Though I had to deal with a bed stripped of bed linen, on the whole I felt satisfied with my find. Feeling exhausted, I retired very early.

Severe itching woke me up at nightfall. As I turned on the light, the new menace became apparent. I could see entire clusters of bed bugs setting off from the ceiling, the walls, and the bed itself, all in search of my blood! I have never ever seen so many of them at the one time, not even in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Dismayed, I spent the entire night sitting up under the light, busily warding off the horrible little creatures. In the morning I learned that the building had formerly housed 'les chiffoniers' - rag-and-bone men, who were not renown for their standards of hygiene. Once again I had to flee.

Eventually, I secured a small room, on the top floor of Michael's hotel. It was located in the vicinity of Place de Clichy and overlooked the cemetery. It boasted a washbasin and a portable bidet. I had reached a new peak of luxury!

Thus Michael and I became neighbours. In the evenings, even though it was strictly forbidden, I often cooked dinner on a kerosene stovette. For safety, I placed it in the bidet. Sometimes we shared dinner; at other times I invited friends to join me.

Many of my cooking ingredients came initially from the Red Cross food parcels, and later on from Sydney, where Uncle Joseph, my father's youngest brother, Aunt Renee and cousin George landed in the middle of the war. Their Australian dispatches contained strange items, such as peanut butter and Christmas pudding. I had to puzzle out how best to incorporate them into my bidet cuisine and give it a touch of the exotic.

At the time, neither Michael nor I were very affluent. The fact that our cheap hotel offered few facilities, exacerbated the situation. Once a week, in need of thorough cleansing, we attended a public bath. I took the view that by smuggling in my washing as well, I could save myself time and effort in the cramped hotel room. I would soak my washing in the bathtub for a few moments while performing my own ablutions. Then, after rubbing hurriedly my small items with some soap, I rinsed them, rung them out as best I could and hid them again in my towel.

One was expected to complete all these activities within one quarter of an hour. The sound of a bell signalled the end of the session. When the time was up, according to the clock on the outside of the door, the attendant flung the bathroom door open. The exertion over, it was time to return ‘home’ with one’s bundle.

Michael and I spent many an evening sharing our daily frustrations. There were problems finding work, having enough to eat, paying the rent and so on. We were young and vulnerable, and above all we had acute emotional problems that taxed our minds and hearts. Every so often Michael gloated about his latest conquests. At other times he was left in a quandary.

Whenever it was my turn I persisted in bemoaning my failed love affair.


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