SURVIVOR

SURVIVOR

Well. It's not a problem. I cannot speak but I can still understand Polish.

It's like to drive 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.

But there were some Polish boys in the neighborhood, 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. At that time I have just gone to a Cheder x), 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 it was the only good thing I have taken from my childhood in Poland. He said that the 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. Nowadays it is remarkable.

Today, if one makes a difference between man and woman, one can risk being accused to be a 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 have been rescued by the Poles.

Why we have never talked about it?

That is a good question. And a very bad one.

If I remember that time? Good God! I have still nightmares!

Do you believe me that 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, the 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 is sitting deep in my body, my mind and my thoughts.

But let's try from the beginning.

My father had one Polish acquaintance. One Antoni Zmyk or Smyk. Do not remember, because my father called him only Antek. They have learned to know each other when my father as a little boy was on vacations near the village Antek was living. And somehow they became a kind of friends. When my father had started as an apprentice in his uncle's business, he had helped Antek to get a job there. Antek was the second son of a peasant and because he could not count on any inheritance, he has 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.

But it happened that his older brother has died, and he was summoned by his father to go back to the village and take over the farming. But 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 has died, and he has taken over the farm. Each time Antek was in the town, he used to visit my father. Always with some fresh groceries from his farm.

And then the German invasion occurred.

I do not remember that time too good. But I remember the Jewish people totally disoriented. We got the order to leave the houses and to move to the special area for the Jews. For a while, we made some trials to adapt our lives to the ghetto conditions. And then, father has made a decision to escape.

He managed somehow to contact Antek, and they have agreed that Antek will hide our family on his farm. They had discussed this topic for a very long time. Father said that he wanted to be sure that all the problems and practical thing were fixed before the escape from the ghetto.

I could not understand it at that time. I thought that it was only a question to leave unnoticed the ghetto perimeter. But now I understand that my father was cleverer than that. The transfer 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 recompensation for the hiding and the hardship connected with it. The food supply and payment for it.

Of course, not everything has been discussed and agreed to the end. Maybe because my father, despite all his wisdom, was not aware what kind of problems such long stay in the hiding can create. Antek could not contribute too much in that matter but was willing to do whatever it had to be done.

Then the time has come. Antek came to the ghetto entrance in the night. Father has bribed the guard, and we got an opportunity to escape the ghetto. We arrived at Antek's farm during the same night and were placed in a kind of cellar room below the kitchen place.

Antek's house wasn't big. It has consisted of one big room, which was used as a living room, kitchen, dining room, sleeping room and everything else.

Our hiding place was much smaller. It was originally a kind of old larder, placed under the kitchen place, where one could enter by opening the wooden lid and using a stationary ladder. Fortunately, they have established a new larder on the ground floor, so this room was completely empty and waiting for us.

Father and Antek had discussed some other hiding possibilities, but according to Antek the pigsty or the cowshed were far too exposed to the extraneous eyes.

So we went into that shabby dark room and spent there almost three years.

What more? I cannot tell. Even now. I do not know how to do it.

How one can describe sitting for hours in that gloomy dark room?

How one can describe the feeling to be denied to go out to the little house because the danger to be 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 one can describe a total prohibition of going out of the hiding room, which had occurred after about one year of our hiding?

How one can describe the forced silence in this room because one never knows if there is someone on the ground floor, who will get an interest in what is going on under the floor?

How one can describe the listening what the people on the ground floor are talking about? How one could digest the crumbs of stories about some Jews the gendarmes have caught and shot at once? Stories about the peasant's family shot dead because one Jew has been hidden in their barn and the following discussion between Antek and his wife about the danger of hiding us?

How one can 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 one can describe the period when Antek has drastically cut the food supply, which anyway never was sufficient?

How one can describe our situation when Antek has totally denied giving us food because we refused to leave?

How one can describe our feelings when we could hear Antek's wife telling Antek to kill us all as a solution to their problem? And what about that evening when Antek came totally drunk and fell through the open lid with a knife in his hand?

How one can describe the following period of time when we did not get permission to get emptied that stinking toilet barrel and got so little food and water that we were more dead than alive?

How one can describe the liberation day when Antek told us to forget about everything and never tell to anybody that he was hiding us because he had to live in this village?

How one can describe the return to our town, just to realize that our home is not our home and everything we had is not ours?

How we came out of Poland?

We stayed there for a while. One of the father's relations, a captain in the Polish Army, has told us that it will be a future for us on the land taken from Germans, called Ziemie Odzyskane. He also told us that the new Poland will be a righteous country, where all citizens will be equal, despite the nationality, skin color or other differences. Then the Kielce pogrom has happened and this was the end of all hope of living in Poland.

Antek? No. Father has never contacted him.

No. We have never given his name to Yad Vashem.

And 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...

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

Alex Wieseltier

May 2019