My Dog John
The room has darkened quickly. Suddenly all was quiet and sad. Sitting on my bed, everything around me seemed colorless, and I felt submerged in an ocean of loneliness. A calendar hanging on the wall opposite my bed had the date of my birthday on it. It clearly said May 25, 1941, and because of the little golden specks I had decorated the numbers with, I could see it even in the semi-darkness of the room. Ever since I was told that I could have a birthday party and found out that my friends could come, I thought of hardly anything else. And now it was over, the party had ended, my girlfriends left and with them went laughter and joy.
They left in a hurry, hardly saying goodbye. It would take them close to half an hour to get to the Ghetto gate before it closed at 6 PM. Closing the gates leading to the Ghetto at six was a new law. I read it as an announcement on large placards a few weeks ago. My girlfriends were Jewish and hurried home not to break the law. They were living where the Germans ordered them to, had each other’s company and went to school. Although Jewish as well, I was living outside of the Ghetto, which I knew made me and everyone around me, who knew about my being Jewish, subject to immediate arrest.
I could hear their laughter as they run down the stairs, and wished that I could go with them, in spite of the fact that I knew that living where they did, inside the Ghetto, was bad, and that living outside where I did, was good. I remembered what Irenka’s mother said to me as she was rushing the girls to put their coats on. “You should be happy” she said, noticing my sadness and speaking as if to a grownup, “You will survive while all of us may perish.” I did not quite understand what she meant but her words brought with them a sense of anxiety with which I was becoming well acquainted.
I sat on my bed unwilling to get up and leave my room, which I felt still held their presence. I must snap out of it, I thought, go out of my room smiling happily and show my parents how much I appreciated the effort they made in making me this party. To change my mood I began to reexamine my birthday gifts. The ones from my friends were in a small pile next to me and were all hand made. We always made gifts for each other’s birthday and they were very special. Rutka made a little book for me with a cover filled with flowers. I wondered if she had flowers in the Ghetto to copy or if she had to use a picture. Iza gave me a small embroidered pin cushion with a smiling face on it. She was such a neat embroiderer much neater than I. I knew that my mother will remark about it when she sees it. Best of all the gifts was on the bottom. It was from Irenka and it was a little frame made from sticks and string with little hearts painted on it in different colors. In the frame was a picture of the two of us that her daddy had made two summers before the war. We were both wearing not very neat play dresses in different shades of pink and, between us was Irenka’s favorite doll wearing a very neat pink dress and shining beads.
Looking at the picture brought tears to my eyes. Oh how wonderfully carefree and happy the two of us looked. It was hard to imagine that the picture was taken less than three years ago.
I liked all my gifts but somehow they did not change my mood and did not make me happy. That I thought was not unusual. Because of the War people were not supposed to be happy. I knew that, and yet during the few hours I spent with my friends specially my best friend Irenka, I was happy. I also realized just how much I missed being with them. I had not seen any of them since they moved with their families to the Jewish Sector, which now was referred to, as the Jewish Ghetto and that was almost one year ago.
They came to my party together as a group connected by a camaraderie they had now and from which I felt excluded. They were continuing their friendships and had enough time to share with each other things that really mattered, like the stories I heard today. I wanted to hear about everything, and specially savored all the details about their school. They told me with laughter how, because it was hidden in the cellar, it smelled like rotten potatoes. I knew the smell well and immediately felt as if I was surrounded by it. When they described their silly old teacher who had no hair and wanted to be called doctor because he was a university professor. Irenka made me roar with laughter when she addressed us all with a funny accent as young ladies, while all the time looking for her glasses that she had pushed to her forehead.
I could not get enough of their stories but what made me feel most lonely were the secrets they whispered about the way they felt when, from across the room, an especially good looking and smart boy looked at them and winked.
A wave of loneliness swept over me. It manifested itself as a familiar, by now gnawing little pain that settled in my chest and at any moment could push up and become tears. I had no friends my age at all. That was strictly forbidden. I remembered a conversation with my father about it:
“You know that we have a lot of guns and ammunition stored here. Yes?” he asked. “Yes,” I shook my head in agreement. “And you know that we can not have people here who we don’t absolutely trust that they will not betray us, Yes?” another shake of the head from me. “So you understand why you cannot have friends visit you. They or their families could become careless and betray us. We are fighting a war and we all must make sacrifices” I hated the sound of that last sentence which he repeated to me often.
When the idea came to me to ask my parents for a birthday party , I begun by saying: “I understand about the sacrifices, BUT, BUT, please just this once. Could I have just Irenka, Iza and Rutka. Just the three of them, they are my old friends and I miss them so much. Besides they all live in the Jewish sector”.
My mother said nothing and my father looked at me, thought for a moment, smiled and said. “OK, just this once, you can have them come for three hours in the afternoon if you promise to have them only in your room”. I was delirious with happiness. For months I have not spoken to anyone my age. I had a teacher who come to my house every day to teach me, I read all the time and wrote in my diary a lot but, all that had the flatness of paper. I wanted real girlfriends and hated the war most for keeping me from them.
And now it was over for another year, I looked at my calendar and a slight hopeful note begun to push itself into the darkness of my thoughts. I could have them again next year and it was only 365 day away. No that will never happen, I dismissed the thought immediately. Everyone was saying that the Ghetto will be closed for good soon and that from now on only people with special permits will be allowed in and out. No, a birthday party outside of Ghetto would not be a sufficient reason to obtain such a permit. I sighed one of those deep grownup sounding sights which lately seemed to escape, from what I thought was my heart. No, I decided this was it, for a long time, until THE WAR IS OVER. Will it ever be over? Some people begun to doubt. I heard it in their voices on the streets and in stores where I sometimes went to buy groceries. In our house we knew that one day it will be over and that we will win. But that was because of the short wave radio deep under my parents bed on which they heard the news late at night. The Germans were going to lose the war. Mr. Churchill was promising it every day and the guns hidden in our house would help the allies to make them lose it.
Another deep sigh and with the pressure in my chest disappearing I began to “regurgitate” my party. I liked this word and what it described. The cows seven stomachs allowed them one at a time to digested all the food they ate. I could do it with my birthday party . Experience it, hear it, and taste it alone later, before I fell asleep that night and on many, many more nights.
I put all the gifts away, ate one of my remaining chrusciks from the box of them Tusia made for me and decided that I was ready to look happy and to join my parents in the dinning room.
When I got there I noticed that Frank, a friend of my father, had arrived with John his two year old German Shepherd dog. I loved that dog and knew him since he was a puppy. I could never quite forget the sweet puppy smell he left on my pillow once, when I was sick and he was put next to me in my bed by my father, to keep me company.
Knowing how much I liked his dog, Frank always brought him to our house when he came to talk to my father. As John grew up, I thought that with his shiny brown eyes and soft beige and black hair, he was the most beautiful animal that has ever lived among humans. Jack London was my favorite writer and I specially loved his books about dogs. John was always the dog hero in all those tales.
As I entered the room where the grownups were sitting I overheard bits of conversation. Frank was being secretly sent to England and needed someone he could trust his dog to. When he saw me he said, ”Happy Birthday young lady” and hugged me. He than asked me to sit next to him on the chair under which John was resting and then he began, what was to become the best speech I ever heard in my entire life.
“Because you are a big girl, now that you are twelve, I know that I can trust you“ he begun after clearing his throat. “I want to give you John. I know that you will take good care of him,“ and then seeing my hesitation, added quickly: “Your parents have agreed that you can have him if you promise to take care of him, and, it is for good. I don’t think that I will be coming back, and even if I do, the dog is yours.”
The three grownups must have understood that the tears which I allowed my eyes to release were brought on by joy. They all smiled and no one said anything as they watched me disappear in ecstasy under the chair to kiss JOHN and to have my tears wiped off my face by his large, soft tongue. Later, as I ran from one of the grownups to the other, hugging them and saying ” thank you, thank you,” I was overwhelmed by happiness unlike any I have ever felt before. A dream I hardly ever allowed myself to dream had just come true. I now had a dog of my own, and I would never be lonely again. After that I sunk back to the floor and went on kissing my dog’s black, cold, wet nose and massaging the area behind his ears which I knew he loved.
When I finally asked to be excused and called John, he followed me to my room. Soon after, Frank left without saying good by to either of us. My parents thought that it would be better that way.
That Spring and Summer John and I became inseparable. I walked him twice every day to a small park a few streets away and there I brushed his hair while he sat on a bench next to me. By the Autumn of that year, in my letters to Irenka which my mother took with her to the Ghetto when she went there to visit my grandmother, I told her of just how happy John made me, of what we did together and of how, I was not feeling lonely any more.
Irenka was happy for me and not jealous at all. That is how we always knew that we were best friends. We were always happy when something nice happened to one of us, and never, never jealous. She wrote me about her school and about the books she was reading and about how sad her household was now without her daddy who, although Jewish, had blue eyes and was not circumcised at birth which made it possible for him to escape from the Ghetto and find work in Austria.
The Winter of 1941 and Christmas of that year were very difficult in Warsaw in general and for our family in particular. There was no heat and electricity was limited to a few hours each day. But I had my dog, so things were not so bad for me. John was always following me, if not bodily from room to room than with his eyes whenever I moved. He slept with me in my bed, and since I cleaned his paws whenever we came home from our walks and brushed him all the time, he was clean enough to be under the blankets with me. I would fall asleep with him next to my cold feet, worried that he may suffocate or be too warm under the blankets. When I woke up in the morning he was usually sleeping on top of the blankets, and yet I never remember waking up when he changed position to get there.
The best moment of that entire winter came when on our short wave radio we heard the voice of the American President and than the voice of the announcer who with tears of joy translated what he said. America had joined the war on our side. The Germans will now have to lose and it will happen soon. My parents both had tears of happiness in their eyes and we all had a hard time at keeping quiet and not shouting with joy, just as loud as we heard the others in England do.
The Warsaw Ghetto was officially closed in December of 1941 and Jews if found outside of it were arrested and often shot on the spot. The Poles who opened their homes to them for a few days or even fed them one meal were arrested and often shot as well.
One Polish family who harbored among their three little boys one Jewish boy had refused to tell the Nazis which one of the children was Jewish. The children when asked also refused to say and as a consequence were all shot. Just the children were shot, not the parents. They were not even arrested. Just left there with the small bodies of the four boys.
Those were the stories I heard.
Our home had now become a first stop for many Jews escaping from the Ghetto. They were mostly friends of my parents who stayed with us while their papers and new identities were prepared for them. My father was a chemical engineer who knew how to make paper which had water marks on it since that is what he did for PKO before the war. Now he and others made false identification cards, which was most important for all those who wanted to stay outside of the Ghetto. They stayed in my room which I gave up to them most willingly and in front of me tried to act as if nothing was happening and they were simply visiting us. Often however when I needed to come into my room for something I saw them crying quietly. They told me that they were crying because they felt guilty that they ran away and left the others inside the Ghetto. I knew what the word “others” meant. It meant close family members mostly parents and sometimes wives and husbands.
They told my parents of the terrible things that were happening inside the Ghetto, of the Nazis using Jewish policemen to cruelly mistreat their own people, and of the deportations to camps, which were already taking place and of the news which was arriving that those camps were indeed death camps for mostly Jewish people and even small children.
One of the friends brought me a little book of poems written by the children inside the Ghetto. The poems made me cry specially one with a drawing next to it showing a small boy looking at the moon. The seven words next to the drawing said :” Please Mister Moon, Take Me With You.
When the visitors were in my room, John slept next to me on a sofa, in my parents bedroom.
In July of 1942 my mother, during one of her weekly visits to the Ghetto with food for her seventy- three year old mother, saw her loaded with other old people onto a cattle car destined for Treblinka death camp.
My grandmother noticed her daughter standing on the curbside and screamed out “Ala save me!” just as she was being pushed with a gun at her back into the train. My mother tried to run to her and was almost shot by a guard who placed his gun to her chest to stop her. She came home that afternoon unable to speak, and went into a state of lethargy which for us watching her refuse to eat and sleep signified a nervous breakdown.
Being alive and relatively safe while her beloved mother was put to death was torture specially because she knew that if my grandmother relented six months before, when it was still possible for her to leave the Ghetto, and agree to stay with us, she could have possibly saved herself. My mother asked her many times and I wrote her a letter telling her how much I missed her and wanted her to stay with us. She said no. “I am too old to change”, she told my mother. And in the letter to me, she said. “I must stay with the people who understand my orthodox way of living.”
When she screamed “Ala save me”, the scream that my mother said would haunt her forever, it was too late.
John was very sensitive to human sadness and whenever he saw anyone in our household succumb to it, he made it his job to be with that person all the time. My mother paced the floor for hours and John stayed close and followed her with his eyes. He did not want to eat as long as she was not eating and I think she begun to eat because I begged her to. I was afraid that she would get sick and that the dog would starve.
Our apartment had guns in it. It also had a short wave radio, a Jewish woman with a false I.D. and a Jewish child-myself living in it. I knew that all of us including our maid Tusia could be arrested and shot for any of those things and yet I was not afraid, except sometimes, and then only for a little bit after which I thought of my father’s courage and became brave again.
One Saturday afternoon in August of 1942 while my parents were visiting friends. I was alone in the apartment with John and Tusia. I was practicing my scales on the piano and Tusia was busy in the kitchen. Answering the doorbell we found two men who stood there and asked to see my mother. One of the men had on a German Army Officer’s uniform. I became so frightened that for a little while, my legs became paralyzed and I immediately begun to experience very sudden and severe cramps in my stomach.
John started to bark loudly and while I tried to quiet him my mind begun to react to what I was hearing. I knew some German, having studied it for two years so I understood what the man in civilian clothing, the informer, I guessed, was saying to the Officer. “Her Mother is Jewish and so is she, I know them,” I heard him say.
“ Where is your mother” asked the Officer in German and the informer translated it into Polish.
“My mother is dead” I heard myself say. “She was killed in the bombardment of 1939 and I live here with my father and our maid Tusia”. I was now firmly attached to what I wanted them to believe. Tusia who was standing next to me, watched me as if I suddenly lost my mind, but said nothing.
“ So who is this woman who lives here with you and your father?” came the next question.
“She is my father’s girlfriend” to my surprise I heard that statement come out of my mouth as if spoken by another person.
“So where are they now and when are they coming home” were the next questions to which I answered,
“I don’t know”.
The two men at the door discussed their next move and told me that they wanted to come in and wait for my mother. I heard the informer say in German. “Let’s wait I know that she will be coming home soon.”
During this conversation John was growling steadily and at one moment I saw the officer hesitate, reach for his gun, and than change his mind. I looked at his uniform to see if I could recognize some sign that he was a Nazi but could find none and even his face seemed normal not like a face of an SS man. No, I decided, this man’s business here was not killing anyone not even John.
They walked into the apartment and I took them to my parents bedroom. I made sure not to even look in the direction of the bed. They walked in and sat down. John lied down on the threshold of the room and watched them with a constant law growl coming out of his throat. The two men remained sitting on chairs without moving.
The thought that they were just one meter away from the guns and the short wave radio made me smile and I thanked God that John was keeping them immobile with his growling.
I left them in the room and went back to the piano to practice scales, except this time I played them all wrong and very loud. Taking a cue from me Tusia went back to the kitchen and proceeded to make lots of noise while rearranging all the pots and pans she could put her hands on. After one hour the two men left and said that they will be waiting downstairs.
Immediately, as soon as I heard their steps on the staircase, I called the friends whose house my parents were visiting. My father listened carefully to what I said and mano comment. He did not come home until the next morning and my mother did not come home for two years.
Next day I was questioned by my father and many others where I had gotten the idea to say what I did and act the way I did. I was also told that because of what I said and did I probably had saved my mother’s life and much, much more. I had no answer other that because I knew about my mother’s new I.D. and name it seemed to me at the time that it was the best thing to say. I did however insist that it was John who was the hero because by growling steadily and staying where he did he prevented the Germans from moving around the apartment and finding the guns and the radio.
On that day my mother begun her “visiting friends game” as she jokingly called her living arrangements that lasted for several months. My parents had many Christian friends who invited her to stay with them because it was no longer safe for her to stay at home. I would visit her at many of those homes occasionally and often heard her say that she must go somewhere else the next day because some neighbor was asking too many questions or someone suspicious had moved in next door.
I would come home from those visits very sad and would only feel better laying down on the floor with my face next to John’s, his paw laying on top of me and his tongue once in a while licking my face.
My mother said that she was staying away from our apartment mainly to protect me and that I must now completely assume the role of a Christian child. I did, and If I felt in danger, it was not because of the fact that I was Jewish but because of all the guns and my father’s underground activities. I looked “good” I had blond hair a short nose and a round face typical to Polish children and, what I thought was most important, I also spoke and behaved very much like a typical Polish thirteen year old girl.
I was aware that just a few streets away within the Ghetto people were suffering and were hungry. From our balcony I often saw brigades of young Jewish men being walked to work in German factories outside of the Ghetto. I often watched them pass and wanted to, like some others, throw food for them. However I did not because I was too afraid.
Once as I was coming home from my lesson in the early evening I saw a dark figure of a small boy running toward the Ghetto and hiding between the shadows of the buildings. He was wearing a black coat that, because it was loaded with food, stood away from his skinny body making him look as if he was an awkward looking bird. I realized that since I was the only person on the street, he was running away from me. I wondered whether if he knew who I was he would slow down and look in my direction. Or perhaps even stop and ask for my help. What would I do or say then, I wondered as I walked on.
Because I had a private teacher and loved to read I was able to pass the exam to second class of a well known girls gymnasium. The Germans considered any education of Polish children beyond fifth grade illegal, and if caught, both the teachers and the students were arrested. Because of it, an underground system of education was devised. Small groups of five or six girls met with teachers in different homes. We followed a regular curriculum, got report cards and could even matriculate. I loved my teachers and the girls in my group of five. They had become sort of friends, but,, perhaps because I could not tell them about who I really was, our friendships did not seem real. For the lessons in our apartment my father insisted that we have religion as well as Latin and literature. It looked good for the neighbors to see a priest in a long black coat arrive every Wednesday and stay for two hours.
Seeing that the priest’s coat needed care, Tusia would clean it while it was hanging in the corridor during our religion lessons. Sometimes she would mend it and sew buttons on it as well. It was fun for us to see him come out for his coat and after seeing the beautiful state it was in, look at the ceiling and thank God for fixing it for him.
In December of 1942 my parents found a small house in Hoszczuwka a village twenty kilometers from Warsaw where mother I and John could be together for a few months in what seemed like relative safety. My father stayed in Warsaw to continue with the gun deliveries to the Ghetto and his jobs of blowing up trains. `He would come to us on weekends and bring me my homework so that I could keep up with my group.
The previous winter I had learned how to knit wool gloves and this winter my father engaged me in knitting special gloves for the people who had to shoot guns. These gloves looked like mittens but had one finger, the trigger finger separate. He was very proud when he wore his glove next time he went on ”a Job” as he called his nightly escapades and immediately after brought me some excellent wool and ordered five more of them, one for each member of his whole troop. He was a leader of a troop of men who were called sappers. They were members of the underground unit in charge of blowing up German trains that were carrying supplies and ammunition for the German Army on the Russian front. I knew that the gloves would keep worm the hands that will pull the triggers of the guns. The German guards who guarded the barbed wire fences around the railroad trucks would probably be killed but I was not sorry for them, they were my enemy and had to be killed, so that the Germans would lose the war with Russia and then with the rest of the world.
In our house we never doubted, not even for one moment the outcome of the war. The only question was, when?
One day in January someone ran into our Village screaming. The Germans are taking Polish children to Germany to make them into Germans. They had already taken some in Legionowo. Make all the children specially the ones with blond hair run into the woods.
It seemed like fun to me to be running with John by my side to and to watch him disappear in the deep snow. It was such a beautiful clear afternoon. The strange shapes of the white snow with light blue shadows that I saw piled on the green branches of pines against the blue sky made me look up in delight. Not noticing the rock hidden in the snow I fell and immediately realized that something was very wrong.
There was a strange almost sweet pain in my right lower leg and I could not get up. We were alone, just John and I. It was getting late. All the stories of people freezing to death came to my mind and I became frightened. John begun to bark, at first trying to encourage me to run with him and then very loud trying to get someone’s attention. He made larger and larger circles barking all the time and never quite losing sight of me. I felt safe because he was with me and so I could concentrate on my leg which was getting swollen and hurting a lot. I knew how to get rid of toothaches and sinus pains by concentrating on them and getting into them so now I decided to do the same with the pain in my leg and to my surprise it worked.
John continued his barking and someone heard him. Within minutes I was carried home to my mother and within an hour I had my leg set in plaster by a doctor who lived a few houses away. I was told to stay off the leg but since my father brought some new books and lots of homework from my teachers I did not mind it too much
Then a new problem, the very next morning after my accident local policeman appeared at our door to tell my parents that the mayor of the town wanted them at the police station with their documents to answer some questions. They stayed at that police station for six hours while I stayed alone with John next to me on my bed.
At first I tried to concentrate on my books and homework but then as the hours passed I became more and more frightened. What if they were both arrested and taken away or even worst shot? I worried about my mother. Her documents were very good but someone could have betrayed her. I kept looking at John quietly sleeping next to me and than remembered Jack London’s stories about dogs that always were able to sense when their masters were in trouble no matter how far they were from them. If John was relaxed I assured myself that there was nothing to be afraid of. I became so relaxed that when my parents returned unharmed and very anxious about me being worried about them and unable to move, to their delight they found us both sleeping. We all agreed that John had again saved the day for us.
It was a very sad time for us that April of 1943. Since we were only twenty miles away from Warsaw when we looked out of the window facing south we could see a red aura above our beloved City. Often in the early evening I would join my mother at that window and just stand there.
She cried silently, I saw her eyes glistening with tears and I just stood next to her and imagined what she was seeing and feeling.
The Warsaw Ghetto was burning. It was her part of Warsaw and I thought that she was mourning it. The reddish cloud never vanished and it became like a magnet for me too. As clearly as if it happened a few weeks, rather than a year before, I remembered my visit with my mother to the Ghetto to see my Grandmother for the last time.
It was February of 1942. My mother with the help of a close friend of the family who was a judge received a pass to enter the Warsaw Courthouse twice each week as a legal secretary. Since the Courthouse was at the border of the Ghetto there were passages through its cellars into the cellars of the Ghetto. The German guard at the entrance to the building knew my mother because she entered whenever he was there and of course no one expected a Jewish woman to enter the Ghetto voluntarily. Her German was quite good so she would greet him and joke with him. Sometimes he would ask her why she was carrying so much food in her purse and she would answer jokingly that she had a big appetite and had to stay at work all day. That day she even said that she brought me so that he could meet me. I remember looking at her in amazement and being very proud of her.
Within a few minutes after walking into the building we opened a door, which led into a small back room hidden behind an old bookshelf and carefully, since it was very dark there, went down what seemed like a maze of corridors and staircases. It was certainly very scary but my mother knew the way very well. The walls were covered with blackness and wetness and the smell was leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.
After about ten minutes we finally emerged inside the Ghetto. I had to open and close my eyes a few times before they could get adjusted to what I was seeing. The middle of the street had snow piled up high but I had to remind myself that it was snow because it was not white but gray and in some spots black. As we were crossing between two piles of the gray mess, suddenly, a small boy run into my mother and grabbed a package of food from her bag. A second later he put the whole package of butter into his mouth and I saw it dripping a white streak on his gray chin.
I screamed and my mother simply grabbed me and pulled me so hard that I almost fell on top of a man in a black coat and hat who was just sitting on the sidewalk leaning against the wall with his hand outstretched toward us as we passed. My mother reached deeper into her bag and tossed to him a roll, which he caught as it fell on to the sidewalk. My hand was held in a steel like grip by my mother, I tried to walk fast . Mother was almost running when we turned the corner to climb the stairs in the house where my grandmother was now living.
I remembered hearing my parents argue that morning. My father did not want me to go to the Ghetto for a visit. He was not worried about my safety but told my mother that I should not be taken there because I would see things. I am sure he meant scenes such as the one I was seeing now. He felt that it was not good for me. My mother argued that she had promised her mother that she will bring me and I also pleaded that I wanted to see my grandmother again because I loved her and missed her.
My grandmother lived with many people in an apartment of three rooms to which she had to move from her large apartment on Francishkanska street, when Ghetto’s size was reduced. She and her sister in law were living in the smallest room of that apartment while two families with small children lived in the other rooms. My grandmother was very happy to see me and pulled me to her lap as if I was still a little girl.
As if this was a most usual visit she asked me about what I was doing in school and kept complimenting me on how I have grown into a young lady. She looked just as neat as ever and smelled of lavender which was her favorite soap. A white lace collar was sewed to her dress and the colorful pin with rubies that I liked to look at so much, was pinned in front of it. Her gray wig was just as clean and neat as I remembered it. The other ladies I met in Otwock who wore wigs because they were orthodox wore red and brown ones and I hated them because they looked false but my grandmother wore a gray one which I thought was becoming.
I could have stayed that way, on my grandmothers lap the rest of the day but mother said that we had to go. When I kissed my grandmother before leaving I was crying because I saw tears in her eyes. She tried to smile and just for one more moment I forgot why I was there and again felt completely surrounded by her unconditional love.
Now on these terrible days of 1943 in the red cloud mother and I were watching , I was sure, were some of the people I saw on the streets that day. My mother just stood there at the window and cried for hours in silence. I knew that she was crying not just for the people but also for the streets that contained her childhood. The streets and houses that were all becoming now a red cloud.
During the time of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising my father was not coming to see us as often and when he did he would tell my mother about the heroism of the Ghetto Fighters and about how many Germans they managed to kill before they died. He was a fighter and to him they were heroes. I think that he thought that telling her, a Jew, that her people were heroes would please her. I would listen and imagine what it was like to die as a hero. I am not sure that she was impressed by his stories, but I certainly was. I appreciated knowing about the heroes and knew that they were not the people I saw sitting on the sidewalks that day. I was also very proud that the winter before I carried in my muff some of the guns they used. I wondered how many Germans were killed by those guns and felt as if I too was a hero.
In Hoszczowka our life continued more or less in safety throughout that spring and summer. Because I had John always with me my mother allowed me to walk to the next village just a bit larger than ours to get groceries. It was a long walk but we did not mind. John would run and sometimes I would chase him but most of the time I would just walk and sometimes pick wild flowers along the way.
One day which was the Saturday before Palm Sunday of 1943 as we were nearing the village and begun so see in the distance a small church on the hill I realized that something was wrong. John stayed close to me and growled. There were many people running shouting and crying. I heard the word hanging and begun to run too in the direction of the church.
Then I saw it. In the middle of the night the Germans had build a scuffle next to the church and on it I saw four men hanging.
Many people who like myself saw it for the first time wanted to know what happened and than I heard what the people were saying.
The hanging was done in the middle of the night and the four men were partisans who killed a German soldier when he came upon them in the woods. They built the scuffle close to the church a day before Palm Sunday just to make sure that everyone would see it. It was a terrible sight, people who were alive just hours before now changed into long lifeless black shapes I did not want to go any further and see the faces attached to those shapes.
I called to John and together we turned and ran home. Once we turned he stopped growling and again wagging his tail tried to engage me in chasing him. A thought came to me, perhaps I should be more like John. . React like him and growl, in my way of course, when I was afraid and angry, but than forget it all and wag my tail, just the way he did, which for me would mean run and sing when all was well again. Somehow I could not do it. The sight of the black shapes had attached itself to the inside of my eyelids and refused to leave.
When I got home my mother had already heard about the hanging and told me that among the four partisans there was one Jew and that is why they all were hung.
I imagined that for sure it must hurt more to be hung that to be shot and decided that my father when he killed Germans by shooting them was acting in a more humane way.
One evening at the end of August someone came to us and told us that we must immediately leave because the local police had a warrant for my mother’s arrest and will definitely come for her early next morning.
Taking just the essentials with John at our side we walked in the night to a place where a truck, which was delivering lumber was waiting, We hid under the burlap bags and that way reached Warsaw. The driver at first refused to take John worrying that he will bark but finally did because I would not get on without him. John never made even the slightest sound and probably enjoyed the ride among the freshly cut lumber with me massaging his ears all the way to Warsaw. My mother got off at her friend’s Wanda’s home in the suburbs and John and I went home to my father and Tusia at our apartment.
I was happy to get back to my classes applying myself very seriously since although I worked hard at home I had missed a whole semester with the teacher. Tusia was happy to see me and my father was delighted to have me and John back.
However for my mother’s “the visiting friends game” was not working out any longer. On the very second day of staying at Wanda’s someone who was known as German sympathizer came asking about her. She hid in the attic and the very next day had to leave.
As planned I met my mother on the afternoon of that day in the park where we sometimes met and saw that she had her traveling bag with her. She looked very tired. I begun to cry when she told me that she was tired of running and that she was going to give herself up.
To see my mother in that state was devastating. She was such a survivor and yet now was loosing her will to fight. I begged her to come home but she said that she would not, no matter how much she longed to, because that would endanger my safety. I cried all the way home and prayed for something to happen to change her mind.
Something did. Hania a good friend of my parents, a beautiful lady with a full body and long blond hair she wore in a braid around her head was at our apartment when I reached it. I adored Hania and just one hug from her, made me smile again. She insisted that I try on the lovely white angora hat she had someone knit for me and when I tried it on and sunk in her soft hug again, just for a little while I forgot about the terrible sadness I felt about my mother. Hania lived in the south of Poland and stayed with us whenever she came on business to Warsaw. As usual she slept with me in my bed that night and it was then that I remembered what my mother said in the park that day and begun to cry. Hania listened as I told her everything. By telling her that my mother was Jewish I knew that I was breaking an oath of silence but I was desperately looking for help and I trusted her completely. Hania was surprised. She knew that my mother was hiding from the Nazis but thought that it was because of her underground activities. She took me in her arms, cuddled me like a little girl, thought for a few minutes and than, with the brightest of smiles, said while she dried my tears with her deliciously smelling handkerchief.
“I know where your mother will be safe and where she can stay until the end of the war. I will take her there tomorrow”
I woke up the next morning with a terrible feeling that by telling Hania about my mother being Jewish I have betrayed her and our whole family and that I must tell my father immediately about what I did.
Going into my fathers room I saw Hania there talking to him.
“I now know about Ala” She declared . “Why didn’t you tell me sooner. I could have helped before. I know a man who owns a flower mill. It is at the border of Ukraine in the middle of a forest where a lot of partisans are hiding and where the Germans are afraid to go”.
My father saw me at the door. One look at me and he must have guessed what I came to tell him. He smiled at me and asked me to come in.
“The man is a retired Ukrainian officer who hates the Germans”. Hania continued gathering me close to her with a hug. “He told me that he needs people to work and I know that he will not ask any questions if I will go there with Ala”. She will be safe there until the end of the war. And you”, she stopped for a moment tightening her hug of me and jokingly pointing her finger at him, “just stay here and take care of the child”
The two of them left the next day by train and when a few weeks later I heard my mother’s voice on the telephone she again sounded like herself. With laughter in her voice she described how much she was learning about making flower and how wonderful Hania had been.
The cold and rainy very gray March day started like all the other. My father had left the evening before and told us that he will be back before we wake. However it was now ten. The literature teacher and the five girls in my group had been discussing the French revolution and Diderot, but I could not concentrate. John was very restless. He barked loudly when the teacher came in, which he never did, and after, instead of relaxing next to me walked around the apartment very agitated.
What is happening to John asked my friend Jadzia and I simply said that maybe he has a stomach ache since he did not want to eat that morning. I was very worried. My father did not come back and John was really acting up all night.
Tusia answered the phone on the next room and called me. The unfamiliar voice on the telephone simply said. Your father was arrested last night and so were the five men with whom he was. Please notify your mother immediately.
I went back to the room where the five girls and the teacher were finishing the chapter in the book and tried to act normal. I must have however looked changed. No one said anything or asked any questions and they all left in a hurry.
I left a telephone message for my mother at the number I found in a special place and waited for her to call me back. She did call within half an hour and simply said. Please do nothing and act normal. If anyone asks about your father simply say that he went for a vacation. I am leaving for Warsaw right now and will be there tomorrow in the afternoon.
It was so good to see her. She looked healthy and although terribly upset with what she heard when she called Stefan the man in charge of the Jobs, with her very short hair and pink cheeks she looked remarkably beautiful. We sat on her favorite sofa with Tusia and I close by and she told us the story of a most successful Job and the arrest after. She said that she is staying in the apartment from now on because she has an important job to do. She will assemble whatever money we have and try to buy my father’s freedom. She has heard that now since the war was almost over the Germans were releasing people from jails for money.
Don’t worry she said. “We have enough not only to pay for his freedom but to pay for the other five men as well. John sat at my side and listened. Since mother came home he seamed more relaxed however I was worried about him since he had not eaten anything for almost two days. I really was not surprised, we have not eaten either although Tusia delighted to see my mother home made her favorite dish of meatballs and Kasha.
The six weeks that followed my father’s arrest were filled with my mother and I visiting the houses of my fathers troop members. Every day we would meet with mothers and wives of those men and discuss the progress of their buy out and preparations for their release from Paviak the prison in the middle of Warsaw where the six of them were kept,. The women tried to boost each others confidence. They believed that they were alive and .that they would be released unharmed. I observed John all the time and because he remained sad and distant I had my doubts… Finally the 50 million zlotys changed hands from those of my mother to those of the German Officer who promised that the men would be released the very next day.
The money disappeared with the German Officer and within one week my father’s name as well as those of his five companion’s were listed on, by now familiar to all, placards as those condemned to be executed if there is another act of sabotage against the Third Reich. Tusia and I were walking from the store when we saw the placard . We knew exactly what it meant and just looked at each other remembering the execution we witnessed six months before.
Oh my God, was all she said and squeezed my hand.
I remembered every detail of the terrible scene as did Tusia.
It was a warm autumn afternoon. I was sitting on the balcony reading with John at my feet, suddenly I became startled at the speed with which he got up and begun to growl. I looked across the street and noticed two large military trucks pull up and stop. Out of one came twenty men dressed in gray with handcuffs and out of the other twenty German soldiers with rifles. I called Tusia and together we watched as the handcuffed men were lined up next the wall, while across from them German soldiers stood with rifles poised. The men pulled gray bags over their faces and suddenly there were twenty shots, which sounded like one, and they all fell down at the same time.
John howled and I cried out. Tusia pulled me away saying this is not a sight for a child, but it was too late, I had seen it and it became one of my nightmares.
Now just six months later in my minds eyes I could see my father dressed in gray against some wall in Warsaw falling to the ground dead.
Two weeks later another placard listed their names. This time it was an announcement that because there was an act of sabotage the people were indeed executed and the date of the execution was May 9th 1944. My mother took it very hard. I again saw her eyes shining with un-cried tears as she went about the apartment trying to act normal, for my sake she said.
John never again played with his old zest and I felt that although not even six years old he became an old dog.
We still had our radio and sometimes mother and I listened at night to the various descriptions of German defeats. We could not get enough of them. Every night we heard how the allies were progressing and how the German Army was being pushed out of Russia and into Poland.
People said that some Russian garrisons have already crossed the bridges and some said that they could practically see them across the river.
The Warsaw Uprising which begun August first, found my mother and I living alone with John the apartment. Now that mother was back with me, Tusia could visit her village to see her ailing mother.
That morning as I was walking with John I noticed that something was very different.. There were lots of boys and young men on the streets wearing armbands of red and white and some of them had rifles. “Is the war over?” I asked breathlessly as I begun to ran home to get my mother… “Yes”, said one of the boys “and we won and killed all the Germans in Warsaw.” My mother also heard the commotion and was now standing on the balcony.
Within minutes we were both on the street being ushered to a small apartment which overnight became the headquarters of the Polish Underground Army called A.K. which, under the directives of the Government in Exile in London was told to liberate Warsaw.
“We must liberate our own City so that the Russians will have to give us the right to govern ourselves when they get here.“ The lieutenant who was the commanding officer said to mother. “That’s what the French did in Paris”. he added.
“We have a short wave radio’, my mother said, “and also some hidden guns and ammunition”. That statement made us both into instant celebrities.
“We need doctors and nurses” said the officer and my mother answered immediately “I took a First Aid Course with the Polish Red Cross before the war so perhaps I could help”. “But” she added immediately “my daughter must become my assistant”.
To keep the German tanks away the streets of Warsaw were barricaded by its citizens The tanks could not get through the tall piles of beds and furniture that comprised the barricades, but their bullets could, so lots of people were wounded.
“There are two doctors who are already working”, said the officer “but we do not have any nurses as yet.”
That very afternoon mother was put in charge of a clinic, which was being formed to take care of the wounded. They were mostly young boys.
I was extremely proud to become a junior nurse.
Kubus was a young boy who was unconscious and was put in my charge. His head was bandaged but other than that there seemed not to be anything wrong with him. He was probably my age with dark eyebrows and blue eyes, which he kept closed most of the time. He was constantly calling his mother. My job was to try to keep him quiet, which I did by singing to him and to make sure that he drunk water which I gave to him by spoonful’s. I was also told to notice when he had to urinate. I was given a special bottle called The Duck and within a few minutes learned how to make sure that his urine went into it. The doctor who came to change Kubus’ bandage saw my visible embarrassment and said:
” You are a nurse now and your job is to make the wounded and sick comfortable, nothing else matters”. When the bandage was being changed I saw a round hole in my patient’s skull. It was the size of a five cent piece and through it I thought that I could see his brain.
I kept asking the doctor if there was anything that could be done to somehow cover the hole in Kubus’ head and he said that after the war he could have an operation and have a gold plate put there.
John was also conscripted to be used, if needed, to find people buried under the rabble. The provisional hospital was established in the cellar of the Ministry of Justice building across the street from our apartment and since there was so much to do there for mother and I, we stayed there most of the time and even slept there. John stayed with me and since it was not safe to go out, with the Germans shooting into the streets he went out only once after dark. Once he was taken to a half destroyed building where there were people buried under the rubble. I was not allowed to go with him but was told later that he started to dig a hole just where a small boy was buried and because of John, found alive. I was indeed very proud of him and someone said that after the War he will get a medal.
The Russian Army stopped advancing on the other side of Vistula and watched as Warsaw became a pile of rubble. Street after street the barricades gave in to the tanks.
The Germans were recapturing the City, neighborhood after neighborhood and demolishing and burning everything in their stride, house after house.
One morning a few young boys ran in excitedly shouting joyfully: “Come and see, we have captured a German tank. It was left by the barricade, and we pushed it to our side.
Now we have a tank to fight them. It even has a machine gun. I started running out to see only to be stopped by my mother. “ No”, she screamed “stay here”. Her words got lost as the loudest explosion I have ever heard sounded outside. After that there was a complete silence. Still holding my hand my mother begun to run outside to see if our building was still standing . John ran with us and after a few seconds begun to howl like I have never heard him howl before. Both mother and I took our eyes off our house which was standing undamaged except for broken windows, to look down at him. Instantly we begun to scream hysterically. Holding our noses since the smell was unbearably hellish we suddenly realized that we were standing among hundreds of dissembled human bodies. Still screaming uncontrollably we turned and run back to the hospital with the howling dog next to us.
There were very few injured who came in to be helped. When the booby trapped tank exploded with all the triumphant boys on it, it did so with such a force that over 400 people perished instantly.
When two days later with masks on our faces to protect us from the terrible stench of burning flesh, we slipped into the apartment to get a few things, John, barking loudly, found among the rubble on our balcony, a human hand which had been blown up two flights in the explosion.
The order to evacuate the Old Town and to walk through the sewage canal came to our hospital one week later. “ What about the wounded?” I asked thinking about Kubus, “All who can walk will be taken through the canals and the others will have to be left behind. “And what about John?” I asked my mother. ‘He cannot go because he will drown there” she said ,” So what will happen to him?” I asked, “He will have to stay in the apartment”.
The day of our canal crossing was without a doubt the worst one of my entire war experience.
I was told to leave John locked in the apartment. At first I did as I was told and both mother and I, taking a knapsack each, left in a great hurry because the people at the canal gave us only five minutes to get there. I ran down the stairs with tears clouding my vision completely. Suddenly the saddest sound I ever heard reached my ears. My dog was howling and I heard the sound of his body attacking the door. That sound and the pitch of his howling will probably never leave me. I turned back and ran upstairs. I unlocked the door and John came running after me We passed my mother on the way to the canal entrance and than were told to wait.
My mother went onto the hole first and I went after her. I was sure that John would somehow follow no matter what, but, he was stopped and when I looked around, our eyes locked for the last time and then his face became lost in a crowd.
I fainted from the smell during the last part of the two hour walk through the canal. My mother left her knapsack and carried me on her back. We emerged in another part of Warsaw. My mother was unable to straighten out her back for days and I became submerged in a dark cloud of sadness which to some extent I think had never quite left me. My childhood had ended and with my home and dog lost forever I became just like any other homeless child, casualty of War.
People who saw my sadness tried to tell me that the Nazis liked dogs like John andprobably let him live. I doubted it. Knowing my dog I knew that he would never allow a Nazi near him and would probably be shot while he attacked the first one who tried to come close to him. That thought made me feel just a bit better. I hoped that my dog John died a hero’s death.
Irena Polkowska Rutenberg 8.5.2018