My Gold Key

Among the birthday presents I received when I was nine in 1938, was a small box.  In it I found my first piece of gold jewelry, a small signet ring with the word Irenka and tiny flowers engraved on its face.

It hurt just a little when the jeweler cut the ring off my finger with a small saw.  It was April of 1942. Terrible war had been going on for almost three years and I was not little any more. I smiled at the jeweler when he told me that the operation was a success and I turned my attention to my mother as she opened a pouch out of which spilled a small mountain of gold jewelry.  I recognized my fathers watch chain and cover, her old bracelet and some old single earrings. My mother begun to speak to me in her most serious voice, “You know that money had lost its value” she begun “and that gold has became now the means of exchange.  Food, shoes, winter coats, everything can be bought for gold”.  Fascinated, by what the jeweler was doing, I simply nodded my head in her direction and watched my ring along with all the other gold pieces  change from shiny gold  to yellow liquid.  There was no shine in the liquid, I could feel my face become red from the heat and excitement as I looked at the blue yellow flame and the hissing fire which emanated from the tool which directed it at the small vessel on the table.  The jeweler, wearing glasses and gloves, picked up the vessel filled with liquid gold and poured its content into a shell filled with plaster.   To my amazement a large yellow key begun to form.  It did not shine and before it had a chance to cool completely something was done to it to make it seem black like all other iron house keys.

“We came here to make ordinary looking keys from gold because we may soon have to get away from Warsaw leaving behind our apartment and all we own.”  She stopped for a while and after looking at me intently and searching for proper words and then almost in a whisper continued.

“We are making this key for you, some day it may save your life, keep it with you all the time, and never remember never, tell anyone that it is made of gold.”

After that my black key was always in my pocket.  My hand would feel for its smooth surface, sometimes holding it very tight.

During the year which followed our trip to the jeweler my life and the life of our family became very sad and gray and no matter how hard I tried I could not think of anything happy.  Every time I sat down to eat I thought of the people in the Ghetto and of my best friend Irenka. I wished that I could share my Gold Key with her. During that terrible year I felt as if I was encircled tighter and tighter by a gigantic spring which slowly, more each day, squeezed completely all of joy out of my life.  Each night I looked forward to going to sleep and asked the key under my pillow to open the golden doors to dreams about happy things. It often did but, with each morning came again the terrible reality of our lives and the knowledge that some of the people I loved have disappeared from it forever. I tried to act grownup, never to complain and never show fear.  Told that I was brave, I acted brave.

During the winter of 1942 like my father, who I thought was the bravest man on earth, I became a gun carrier for the underground.  My JOB, was to follow my father at a safe distance carrying  two guns in my fur muff and when he went into a house to give them to him.  Holding on to the cold metal inside the muff not very different to the touch than my Key, I walked quickly, looking ahead of me knowing that as a child I was much less likely to be stopped and searched.

During the first one of the JOBS, I saw my father who walked ahead of me being stopped by two officers in Gestapo uniforms who suddenly stopped their motorcycle and within a minute were interrogating and searching him. I passed them on the sidewalk without as much as a side glance in their direction.  I walked around the block and arrived home ten minutes later still holding tightly to the guns.  I was greeted as a hero by my father and his friends and pronounced a qualified gun carrier who was brave and could be trusted.  I carried guns after that often and even once carried a heavy round shaped object that they said was a grenade. Before starting out I always made sure that the key was in my pocket to protect me. I knew that what I was carrying would within minutes be thrown over the Ghetto walls and then soon, perhaps in days or weeks be used to kill the Germans. I was convinced that what I was doing was good since the Germans were bad, had killed many people and wanted to kill many more.

In March of 1944 my father was arrested after blowing up a German train filled with ammunition destined for the Russian front.  The man who escaped and brought a small and badly tattered note written by him while in prison, told us of how viciously my father was tortured during the investigation and of how in spite of it, he never betrayed anyone.  The little note said; I love the two of you very much.  Please save yourselves and take care of each other.

The Warsaw Uprising started in August and ended in October of 1944. When it was over all of the people who survived were being evacuated from Warsaw, a City most of which, was reduced to rabble. Those of us who served as volunteer soldiers or nurses had to be considered by the Geneva convention as Prisoners of War and were told to find white sheets and stand under them.  Something happened however at the place where everyone had to enter a wagon of a long cattle train. I was told to go into a group of teenagers and my mother refused to let go of my hand, I was afraid that the soldier would kill her so I broke away and ran into a wagon filled with complete strangers mixing with them and realizing to my dismay that my Mother and I had become, for the first time since my father’s arrest separated.

I now was sitting in a corner of a car of a train which was taking me and thirty other people away from Warsaw, taking us somewhere, no one knew where. Fingering the key in my pocket I thought that perhaps soon I may really have to use it to somehow save my life.

Strangers around me were asking each other: “Where are we being taken to?” “Was it  to Auschwitz or Treblinka to be gassed?” “No” someone sitting close to me said. “They will not do it to us, we are not Jews”.  I immediately thought about my mother and tried to vanish even deeper into the corner.  No one knew where we were and if we should try to pry open the door and escape.

Someone asked. “Why not escape when the train slows down a bit”. discussion followed and I just sat there, a scared fifteen year old too young to be taken seriously into any discussion as important as this one.  For the first time in my life I was completely alone. No one in the cattle car knew me. Thank God I still had my key I thought as I followed its most familiar shape with my fingers.

Soon after through a small crack between the wooden boards we read the name of a town in Germany and the plans to escape were abandoned for the time being.

Six hours later the train stopped. A German soldier opened it from the outside and told us to get out.  It was not Auschwitz or Treblinka but a small train station in Germany called Mulheim. My hand in my pocket holding on to the key felt as if it was frozen to it forever. I considered running away between the cars as some others did. We noticed that the soldiers were not shooting after the ones who ran. But, what about my mother?.  She was somewhere on the train, will look for me and if she doesn’t find me, become hysterical worrying about me.  No, I must stay, I decided just standing outside our half-open wagon. Just then I saw her running in my direction, shouting my name as loud as she could. I ran toward her with tears of joy clouding my vision and I did not notice the ditch which separated us, and fell.  The German soldier who was standing just a few feet away did not move as he saw me get up and without paying attention to my bleeding knee, bend down to look for something in the ditch. My key had fallen out of my hand as I tripped.  After a minute I found it, and just as my mother reached me, I was again holding it firmly in my hand.

It was after that, that I began to think of the key as my magic talisman or my good luck charm and made sure that I had it with me always.

We stayed in the Prisoner of War Camp number 4B in Mulheim Saxony for nine months until May 7th 1945 which marked the end of the Second World War with Germany.   That day I saw our German guards in civilian clothes gather in the meeting place in the center of the camp and heard the announcement of the head officer saying that the war was over and that now they must fight for their fatherland as an underground army.  The Russian occupation army came a few days later and our first month filled with adventures as displaced and homeless mother and daughter team begun. With My Gold Key in my pocket decisions will have to be made and life paths will have to be followed but The War Was Over.  We had survived it and knew that whatever was waiting for us in the future, we had each other and that we owed those who we loved and who loved us but who perished, to live in a way they would live if they had a chance to survive.

Our after the war adventures as displaced and homeless refugees going West because going East would mean Siberia, all ended well.

While we waited in comfort for eighteen months, in Eindhoven Holland for the Polish Emigration Quota to allow us entry to America my Gold Key rested in a safe place. And then the day of our embarkation finally arrived.  On February 17 1947 with just one small suitcase each, and my Gold Key in my pocket my mother and I entered our cabin on Nordam, a small and quite new and luxurious Dutch Ocean Liner.

Next morning, wearing my best pants suit with deep pockets and holding on to My Key, I entered the dinning room and proceeded to order most of what was on the menu.  While waiting I took one look at the waves through the large square windows, and when the waiter came with the first course of my breakfast we passed each other at the entry to the dinning room.  He smiling broadly and, I holding my mouth in flight to the safety of our cabin. During our entire crossing the sea was very stormy and my seasickness continued.   I dreamed about the elaborate menus in the dinning room and even asked my key for help, but until the weather settled five days later, it was denied.

When finally the sound of the engines quieted down our journey had come to an end. As I ran up on to the deck, to my joy I noticed that the sky had cleared and I saw a beautiful glow of sunset encircle the bay.

An announcement came that we will be moored all night just where we were while we waited for the Ellis Island offices to open so that those of us whose documents had to be certified could be processed.

I  found a spot on the side of the deck where I could see the Statue of Liberty. As the sky grew darker I could watch the light from her gigantic torch light the sea.

Much too excited to sleep I just stood there for hours starring at the flame dreaming about my new  life which was to begin at dawn and holding  on to the key in my pocket.  And then suddenly I had a thought. Am I not at the threshold to America?  Why not Imagine a golden door and let my key open it? Of course, but for this it must be gold and not black. I ran to the cabin, found my pocket knife, went back to the spot on the deck, and after turning to see if anyone was watching, took out my key and with the sharp blade began to scratch its black surface revealing a brilliant gold shine. Happy that now it was safe for it to shine,  I spent most of the night removing its black surface and exposing the beauty of my Gold Key.

Categories: CHILDREN AT WAR

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