What's that you just said? Was it in Polish?

Sorry, I can't speak Polish, but I can understand a few words here and there.

Now, who told you that?
Morris? My nephew... Hmmm, I could have guessed as much.
That boy had some weird ideas about almost everything!

Not everything he told you is wrong, but most of it is.
Well, maybe fifty percent because the part about Grandpa is right.

Both Grandpa and Grandma were from Poland.
However, you can only call one of them a Holocaust survivor because only Grandpa was Jewish.
Grandma was not.

That was a problem for a while.
Especially after they arrived in America.
When they came here, they did not speak a word of English.
Grandpa was fluent in Yiddish, so he could communicate with the Jewish community, and he was able to get a job quickly.
Grandma, alas, had problems with English to the end of her life.
Our family joke was that our grandma was more fluent in Yiddish than in English and that she became more kosher than the rest of us. Even though she was actually a gentile and we were at least half or more Jewish.

She never converted, but my father and my uncle were brought up as Jews.
My grandmother ran a kind of Jewish home even though we could never be called a religious family.
My father and uncle had a bar mitzvah, and my sister and I had a bat mitzvah too.
For a while, my father took it more seriously than Grandpa did.
But all this was done just to fit in with our neighborhood which was almost 100% Jewish.
You know the old saying, "when in Rome..."

But I suppose that is not the subject you are interested in.

What can I tell you about my grandparents' life in Poland during the war?
Grandpa would never talk about it.
All that I know came from my grandmother.
She told me this story only once. It was the year she died.

One cannot say that she was a happy woman.
It seemed she never found her place in America.
It's as if she were all alone in the world, especially after Grandpa died.

It looked like the family was somehow ashamed of her.
She was a simple woman and had difficulty making simple conversation in English.
I was the only one she could talk to, and this happened quite late in her life.
Just a couple of years before she died.

I must confess that we, her children and grandchildren, had difficulty understanding her.
When we visited our grandparents, we preferred to talk with Grandpa.

I became closer to her after Grandpa died when she lived alone.
She never complained.
She said that everything she did was because of her love for Grandpa, and she was never sure if he had married her out of gratitude rather than love.

I never told her story to anyone because it was so unusual.

Grandma lived in a little town with her parents.
She had an older brother who was involved in a gang and did not live with them.
Grandpa lived with his family in the same neighborhood.
They were much better off, and Grandma's mother had a cleaning job in their house.
My grandmother went there a few times when she was little, and when she became a teenager, she helped her mother at work.
She saw my grandpa there, but they were not friends.
They were just aware of each other.

Grandma's education went as far as primary school, while Grandpa completed high school and began to study law.
Grandpa was six years older than she was.
When the Germans invaded Poland, she was sixteen, and he was twenty-two.

In the beginning, the war didn't change my grandmother's family's life too much.
Grandpa, however, had to interrupt his studies and return home to live with his family.

Then it all started.
The Jews in town were ordered to move to an area called the ghetto.
Grandpa and his family went there too.

In the beginning, the Jews could leave the ghetto if they had some valid errands and permission.
After a while, life in the ghetto became increasingly difficult.
The ghetto was surrounded by walls, and the guards were at the entrance gates.
The Jews still tried to leave the ghetto because food supplies became critical
The problem was not only the German soldiers, gendarmes, or the Blue Police (mobilized from the old Polish police force).
There were also gangs of young thugs who harassed Jews and demanded money when they found them outside the ghetto.
Some of them were not satisfied with just blackmailing Jews and taking their money away. Many Jews were robbed and beaten up so bad that they died in the street.

Then in the middle of 1942, the Germans began emptying the ghetto of all people.
They sent the Jews away in cattle wagons.

One afternoon my grandmother was on her way home when she noticed a scuffle at the street corner. As she came closer, she could see her brother and a few other thugs kicking and clubbing someone lying on the ground.
Suddenly, she realized that it was my grandpa.
She ran up and started screaming at them to stop beating the man immediately.
As she pushed the thugs away from my grandpa, they turned angry.
Her brother shouted at her that this was none of her business, and if she didn't leave immediately, she would get the same treatment.
She was so angry with them that she screamed even louder.
She yelled that they would have to kill her first before they could harm the man lying on the street anymore.
The gang leader, her brother, said they were just about finished with the beating. He told her she was welcome to bury the corpse, and they left.

My grandpa lay on the ground, covered in dirt and blood.
There were no other people on the street, and it began getting dark.
It was not that far from their flat, and my grandmother somehow managed to drag him up to the second floor and into her room.
To cover up what she did and avoid trouble, she cleaned the floor in the flat, the stairs, and the pavement in front of the building. Fortunately, nobody saw anything.

During all this my grandpa was only half-conscious, and she was sure he would just pass away. For the next couple of days, he was on the verge.
It was difficult for her to take care of his wound because she had no experience and was afraid to ask anyone for help.
The only thing she could do was to clean his wounds as well as she could and sprinkle some vodka on them as a disinfectant.
Fortunately, he was unconscious and did not cry out.
To clean the wound on his head, she had to shave it first.
It was the first time she tried to use a razor, and he ended up with some additional cuts and scrapes.
For the next few days, he ate nothing. He only took some water, which she spoon-fed him with.
As it turned out, his body was strong enough to survive all that beating, and he finally opened his eyes on the fourth day.
On the fifth day, she was able to feed him a little.
After a week, he was able to speak.
After ten days, they had a new problem because he needed to go to the bathroom.
She solved this by providing a bucket that could be emptied at nighttime.
She did all this without informing her parents, who were living in the same flat, and managed to keep it secret for two long weeks!

Eventually, she had to tell her mother, and they kept it from her father for another two weeks. They managed to get extra food, some bandages and medicine.
Grandpa continued to recover and was soon able to sit and talk.
He told my grandmother that his family received an order to pack that day because it was their turn to be transported to a labor camp.
Rumors were circulating that it was not a labor camp but an extermination camp.
That's why his father told him to run away immediately.
He escaped from the ghetto, not knowing what to do or where to go, and then he was caught by her brother's gang.

By the way, her brother visited her parents and asked what happened to the Jew they had beaten up.
She told him that she had gone home immediately and that there was no trace of him the next day. Perhaps, he was not as dead as it seemed.

Then it was time to involve her father, who became furious and wanted to kick my grandpa out at once.
His wife, however, convinced him that it would not be a good idea.
What if the neighbors discovered they had kept a Jew in their flat for almost a month?
It would take only one badass to rat them out to the Germans.
There was no need to explain the consequences in light of all those German rules and regulations posted all over town.
It helped though that my grandpa managed to keep some money and gold hidden away from the thugs.

It was decided to help my grandpa to find another hiding place.
They had a distant cousin who lived near the mountains.
The place was almost deserted, and the cousin was always short of workers.
It would be a good opportunity for my grandpa to find a job and a safe place to stay.

Grandma convinced her parents that it would be safer if she went with him.
She provided several good reasons for this.
The first was that my grandpa did not know where their cousin lived.
The second was that the cousin would be suspicious about hiring a total stranger.
The third was a bit more sophisticated. What if that stupid Jew, not knowing the way, got lost, captured by Germans, and then, under torture, spilled the whole story about hiding with them?
So she got permission to go with him.

They left, supplied with food for the road and the following night.
They were wary of using public transportation because Grandpa was still very weak, and all his scars and bruises would raise suspicion.
She was familiar with the area, so they traveled at night using side roads and pathways.
They kept to the woods and rested in old shelters or abandoned barns
It was my grandmother who took care of their food and water needs.
She had a sixth sense regarding the right road to take, safe places, and the farms where it was possible to get some supplies.

It took more than three weeks before they finally arrived at her cousin's place.
Grandpa's hair had regrown a little, and the scars on his face were almost healed.
Luckily, he looked more like an escaped convict than a Jew.
Which was preferable.
Grandma told her cousin that he was her fiancé and needed to hide from the Germans because he was a member of the resistance.
It was enough for the cousin that they were both willing to work in return for a place to stay, so he didn't ask about anything else.

On the same day he sent them to a remote sheep farm, where they were to take care of the animals.
They lived in an old hut with an old fireplace and holes in the walls instead of windows.
The nights were terribly cold, and the only warmth they could get was from their bodies.

When did she first fall in love with him?
Probably when he had lain unconscious in her room.
He knew it, but she was the one to make the first move.
From that time onwards, they lived together like husband and wife.

The work on the sheep farm was very hard.
Despite years of forced labor in the ghetto, my grandpa was initially almost useless. Grandma was more practical and had to show him how and what to do.
On the other hand, when the wind and cold kept them awake in the evenings, he was an excellent storyteller.
She told me that, despite all their hardship, it was the best time of her life.
It was the only time she felt that they were equal as a couple.
She had her practical sense, and he had the knowledge and ability to talk about fascinating places, interesting things, and books.

When the Red Army liberated the area, they decided to leave.
Back in town, they said goodbye to each other.
Grandma longed for her family, and he went to Warsaw, where he could get some information about the fate of his family.
Grandma's parents were happy to see her return, at least in the beginning.
They were convinced that she had been captured and sent to a labor camp or worse.
But the atmosphere soon changed when she told them she spent all that time with my grandpa. A Catholic girl with a dirty Jew?
The day after, her older brother, who had become a police commandant in the new regime, came to visit and heard the story.
He called her a Jewish whore and a Jewish mattress.
Her father showed her the door. He told her that she had no home and no parents.
Her mother said nothing and didn't defend her.

My grandmother went out, not knowing what to do next. In a daze, she wandered to the railway station.
And who appeared from the train that had just arrived? My grandpa!
She fell into his arms and told him what was happening to her.
He told her he had found out that all his family was murdered in the Treblinka extermination camp.

He never said that he loved her.
Even at the railway station, he simply asked her: "Do you want to go with me?".
When she answered: "I will go wherever you go", he said: "Now we only have each other. I cannot promise you much. But one thing you can be sure of. I will never leave you".

At last, I understood why Grandma, at Grandpa's funeral, was crying out like crazy in Polish: "But he promised me!"

Alex Wieseltier - Uredte tanker
Alle rettigheder forbeholdes 2019
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