SURVIVOR

2019-05-09


SURVIVOR

Well. It's not a problem. I cannot speak, but I can still understand Polish.
It's like driving a bike. One can be very rusty, but one still can.
So you can speak Polish, and I will answer in English.
You know. In my home, we used to speak Yiddish.
In the neighborhood were some Polish children, so I had to learn to speak and understand Polish too. My father was fluent in writing and speaking because of his business and plenty of contacts with the Poles.
No. This time, I was in a Cheder1), so I never learned to write or read Polish.
My habits? To be polite to the opposite sex? That is what my father used to tease me with. That was the only good thing I have taken from my childhood in Poland. That politeness toward women was a rule of Polish gentlemanhood. Not everywhere, but in high society and intelligentsia.
You are right. In the old days, it was something one just did, but today it is remarkable.
Today, if one makes a difference between man and woman, one can risk being accused be sexist or worse!
But back to our horses. Who has told you about me?
OK. Never mind. It is true. I am originally from Poland.
And I am one of the Jewish survivors.
And yes. We were rescued by the Poles.
Why do we never talk about it?
That is a good question and a bad one.
If I remember that time? Good Lord! I still have nightmares!
Do you believe I have never talked about it with my father or mother?!
How could it happen we never mentioned these almost four years of our life?!
It's difficult to explain, so let me tell you how it was.
It was impossible before, but it is easier now, after all these years that have passed.
As they used to say, time heals all wounds, but the scars remain forever.
Frankly speaking, I do not know where to start. I have never tried it before.
Even it still sits deep in my body, mind, and thoughts.
But let's try from the beginning.
My father had one Polish acquaintance. One Antoni Zmyk or Smyk. I do not remember because my father called him only Antek. They had learned to know each other when my father, as a little boy was on vacation near the village Antek was living. Somehow they became a kind of friend. When my father started as an apprentice in his uncle's business, he helped Antek to get a job there.
Antek was the second son of a peasant. Because he could not count on any inheritance, he decided to make a living in the nearest county town. So he was very grateful to get an opportunity for a job, whatever it was.
His older brother died, and he was summoned by his father to go back to the village and take over the farming. He has never forgotten what my father did. Meanwhile, they became married, and the contact became less frequent, but it still was. Antek's father died, and he took over the farm. Each time Antek was in town, he used to visit my father. Always with some fresh groceries from his farm.
Then the German invasion occurred.
I do not remember that time too well. I remember the Jewish people were totally disoriented. We got the order to leave the houses and to move to a separate area for the Jews. For a while, we tried to adapt our lives to the ghetto conditions. Then, the father decided to escape.
He managed to contact Antek, and they agreed that Antek would hide our family on his farm. They discussed this topic for a very long time. Father said he wanted to be sure that all the problems and practical things were fixed before escaping from the ghetto.
I could not understand it at that time. I thought it was only a question of leaving unnoticed the ghetto perimeter. Now I know that my father was cleverer than that. Transferring from the ghetto to Antek's farm was just the beginning of our problems. What about the hiding place? The possible duration of the hiding? The compensation for hiding us and the hardship connected with it. The food supply and payment for it. And plenty of other issues.
Of course, not everything was discussed and agreed to the end. Maybe because my father, despite all his wisdom, did not know what kind of problems such a stay in hiding could create. Antek could not contribute much in that matter but was willing to do whatever had to be done.
Then the time had come. Antek came to the ghetto entrance at the night. Father bribed the guard, and we got an opportunity to escape the ghetto. We arrived at Antek's farm the same night and were placed in a cellar room below the kitchen place.
Antek's house was not very big. It consisted of one big room, which they used for a living room, kitchen, dining room, sleeping room, and everything else.
Our hiding place was much smaller. It was used before as a kind of old larder, placed under the kitchen where one could enter by opening the wooden lid and using a stationary ladder. Fortunately, they established the new storeroom, and this room was empty and waiting for us.
Father and Antek discussed some other hiding possibilities. According to Antek, the pigpen or the cowshed was too exposed to extraneous eyes.
We entered that shabby, dark room and sat inside it for almost three years.
What more? I cannot tell. Even now. I do not know how to do it.
How can one describe sitting for hours in that gloomy dark room?
How can one describe the feeling be denied to go out to the little house because the danger of being seen was too big? And how one can describe getting accustomed to a stinking barrel where one had to piss and shit on the eyes of the other members of the family?
How can one describe a total prohibition of going out of the hiding room, which had occurred after about one year of our hiding?
How can one describe the forced silence in this room because one never knew if there was someone on the ground floor who could get an interest in what was hidden under?
How can one describe listening to what the people on the ground floor were talking about?
How can one digest the crumbs of stories about some Jews the gendarmes caught and shot at once? Stories about the peasant family shot dead because one Jew was hidden in their barn and the following discussion between Antek and his wife about the danger of hiding us in their house?
How can one describe the quarrels between my father and Antek, who wanted us to leave, and my father threatening him to denounce him to the Germans for his hiding of us?
How can one describe the period when Antek drastically cut the food supply, which in advance never was sufficient?
How can one describe our situation when Antek denied giving us food because we refused to leave?
How can one describe our feelings when we could hear Antek's wife telling Antek to kill us all as a solution to their problem?
What about that evening Antek came drunk and fell through the open lid with a knife in his hand?
How can one describe the following time when we did not get permission to get emptied that stinking toilet barrel and had so little food and water that we were more dead than alive?
How can one describe the liberation day when Antek told us to forget about everything and never tell anybody that he was hiding us?
Because he had to live in this village.
How can one describe our feeling when we returned to the town and just realized that our home was not our home and everything we had was not ours?
How did we come out of Poland?
We stayed there for a while. One of my father's relations, a captain in the Polish Army, told us that it would be a future for us on the land taken from Germans, called Ziemie Odzyskane. He also told us that the new Poland would be a righteous country, where all citizens would be equal, despite nationality, skin color, or other differences. Then the Kielce pogrom happened and ended all hope of living in Poland.
Antek? No. Father has never contacted him.
No. We have never given Antek's name to Yad Vashem.
My father has never talked about it. Neither did I.
Antek and his wife have probably died. And they have not had any children.
At least at that period, we were there.
So let bygones remain bygones...

1) Cheder - a traditional elementary school teaching the basics of Judaism and the Hebrew language.

Alex Wieseltier
May 2019

Alex Wieseltier - Uredte tanker
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