Chapter 28: Absolution

Arkhypenka Street, Lwow

11th October 1940

Otto,

I am writing this letter late at night to give to Maryla for you, before she leaves tomorrow to travel on her visa to Danzig to meet Olek. I feel sure that if she makes the journey without being arrested and deported, she will meet him, and they will know where to find you. It is my last letter to you because I do not believe that we can continue to survive here much longer, and because I have made a decision about our marriage.

You should know that the last year has been like hell on earth for Anna and me, and that the terror we have suffered by being caught in Lwow under Russian occupation has been immeasurable. For now, we are not under threat of arrest by the NKVD, but there is much hatred for Jews among the Ukrainian population, and many believe that Hitler will soon want the rest of Poland for himself. You may know more than I do about what happens to Jews who are rounded up and taken away by the SS. I am told that many are taken into the forests and shot, and many more are taken to labour camps where they are starved.

I hold you responsible for our predicament. Your demand that I should return from Paris to Krakow, rather than staying with Tom and Max in London sealed our fate. I have stopped being angry about that, Otto. At that time, you may have thought it best for us, and certainly you saw merit in the family being together, and in my protecting Maryla.

We have been married for twenty-one years, and have produced three beautiful children. During those years, you have been unfaithful with more than one woman, and for the last ten or fifteen, I know you and Maryla have been having an affair. You have refused to discuss this, and now we have been apart for almost eighteen months, I’m no longer interested in what you have to say. I am only interested in the safety and protection of our children. But I can’t do enough to protect them on my own. Max and Tom are, hopefully, safe in England, and unless the Nazis succeed in defeating the British, perhaps they will survive this terrible war. If you are in touch with them, tell them I love them and I think of them every day. Anna has been sick for some months with dysentery, and has lost a great deal of weight. She isn’t able to walk a lot, and has had no schooling. Her days are spent lying in her cot, while I slave in a soup kitchen for twelve hours, serving an endless queue of starving refugees. But that is the reality of this war, and I do what I can for her.

So this letter is your absolution from our marriage. If you and Maryla are destined to be together, then take better care of her than you have of me, because she is a good and kind mother who is not as strong as I am. If you are not, then perhaps you will still find someone more suited to you to spend your days with. I wish you well.

Your wife

Miriam.

 

Chaper 27: Aden

Cresent Hotel, Aden

28th November 1941

My dear Tomasz,

This is my third letter to you, care of your address in Bloomsbury square, the last I have for you. I’m no longer convinced you are still residing with Mrs Stanmore, since you didn’t reply to my last two, though of course you may have replied and posted letters which simply didn’t reach me in Budapest or Casablanca.

I imagine that Imperial College is no longer running the metallurgy course, whilst London endures the blitz. It may be no more than rubble now, from what I have heard of the terrible bombing.  Have you spent your nights in the London underground stations? They report here that everyone is driven into their cellars and into the tunnels of the railways to escape the bombs.  I hope so much for your safety.

And what of Max? I trust you are both still living together and that you are keeping an eye on his behaviour. I assume he managed to finish his studies, and that he passed his matriculation examination, though he will have had to pull up his socks to do so. I would hope that he is considering some gainful employment in London, where there is a thriving timber import business. I do of course have many contacts but until I hear what he is doing, it is probably best not to try and advance those opportunities.  It would also be likely that their wharfs were bombed during the blitz, as these would be prime targets.

As you can see from the letterhead, I am now in Aden, and have travelled with Olek, Maryla and her two children from Budapest, via Casablanca. I was only able to meet up with Olek three months ago, after having been discharged from the regiment, owing to ill health (nothing to be too concerned about, simply a recurrence of my angina). We were stationed in Budapest, but the regiment was being disbanded, and many of my compatriots were travelling to Scotland under General Kukiel, to form an army in exile to help the British fight Hitler. Apparently, Stalin has released a large number of Polish soldiers from prison, to help fight Hitler, since he decided to attack Moscow. I was advised not to go with them, but to go south to Palestine or somewhere else which is hot and dry, and now that we are together here, I also feel that Olek will need support with looking after Maryla and the children. If you are able to find where the regiment is stationed, there are some very fine men among them and you could do worse than join up. I expect there is an headquarters for the Polish Free Army in Edinburgh. I’m not sure what can be done by our chaps in Scotland, though I understand that the Allies see this as a potential point of invasion from Hitler across the North Sea, but I am sure they need all the help they can get.

Olek is not so well himself, and he has suffered a minor heart attack since we last met. He has aged considerably, and now sleeps a great deal. He was so worried about Maryla and the children, caught as they were between the German and Russian advances, and then living under the Bolsheviks for a year or more, and it seems to have taken all his resources to get this far. Maryla has lost a great deal of weight, and the children were very quiet for some time after they all escaped. It is so saddening to see what a sorry state they are all in, and I do what I can to build them up  again.

It has been a torturous journey, full of mishaps and administrative blocks. We have been ‘on the run’ from the advance of Hitler into Africa, and after a great deal of trouble, not to say expense, in Casablanca, we finally find ourselves in a relatively safe haven, in this British protectorate, where there is a thriving Jewish community. We have been here in Aden for two weeks, awaiting more documents, and tickets which will allow us to travel on to Karachi. I must say that it has been a source of great frustration that I have been unable to reach London to find you and Max, and of more than frustration to tell you that I am still unable to locate or communicate with your dear mother.

I appreciate that you must be extremely worried about her and little Anna, since they returned to Krakow almost two years ago. Though I have not exchanged letters with Miriam, I have in fact heard about her and Anna, and to my knowledge, they are still OK. Here is what I do know:

Your mother took Anna from Krakow to Naleczow soon after returning home, along with your aunt Ania and uncle Paul and their children, because of the declaration of war, and their obvious fear of being over-run by the Nazis. There she met up with Maryla, Stephen and Anita, and everyone decided they should travel east, as Hitler advanced across Poland. I gather they settled in Lwow, where your resourceful mother found work in a charity, close to where aunt Ada’s mother lives. Nevertheless, from the descriptions of life in Lwow from Maryla, I have to say that I have been very worried about your mother and Anna’s experiences under the Russians. Miriam is, as you know, one of the most resourceful people alive, and I am convinced that if anyone can survive this terrible ordeal, she can.

Olek was in Danzig, and through his diplomatic contact, Conrad Brzozowski, who was visiting Lwow regularly, managed to obtain travel visas for Maryla and the children, but was unable to help Miriam. I had already tried to apply for documents for her and Anna, when I thought they were in Krakow but of course I failed. Besides, I have only discovered their whereabouts recently, so it would have been impossible to send anything care of Krakow.

Olek retains his diplomatic papers from the work he did in Bucharest for the Rumanian government many years ago, and surprisingly, he was able to persuade the authorities in Berlin that these still have some validity… But that is another story. Since Olek and Maryla and I met up, I have of course written many times to the address in Lwow which Maryla had for Miriam, but to no avail.  Your mother must have moved, or else Conrad failed to deliver my letters, because I did not hear back from her. Maryla brought one letter with her from Miriam, which I have beside me. It is now four months old, and I have been unable to reply, since Conrad did not return to Danzig before we left. Olek thinks he may have been arrested in Lwow, where we hear that many politicians and diplomats have been jailed by the NKVD, and sent to Siberia. In your mother’s letter, she asks after your wellbeing, and sends her love, in case I am able to contact you. She said that Anna was unwell and that they were barely able to find enough to eat. She asks me for money, which I am unable to send her. She tells me that the banks have confiscated our accounts, which I of course knew, and she asks for news of Olek. I am sorry that I have not been able to respond to her questions.

I hear from Olek that Stashek Frenkel is in Britain, and it is possible that you could try and find him with the Polish forces there. I’m sure that is a tall order, but Gabriela is still in Krakow, so perhaps he could write to her from England, since their letters would not be subjected to the same scrutiny, and perhaps she can reach Miriam. Such a convoluted process this is to send and receive news!

So, I must say that we are forced to keep moving, and Karachi is not somewhere I would have considered in my wildest dreams as a destination, but here in Aden, one has to take one’s chances when they come. While most people seek transportation to the United States of America, it is apparent that all the steamers have been requisitioned for the Atlantic Fleet, and nobody is getting berths any more.

Tomasz, you know I am not a religious man, but if I were, I would pray for your and Max’s safety. For now, I have to assume you are in perhaps the last safe haven in Europe. I hold myself responsible for asking your mother to return to Krakow from Paris when she was with you there, and I am unfortunately unable to turn back the clocks and recommend to her that she travel with you to London. As you know, we were very often apart at that time, and it was so very hard to know what was best in those weeks before the declaration of war. So I must live with the consequences of my decision, and ask those who still believe in a higher power to pray for your mother and sister’s safety.

I so hope this missive reaches you, and that you will be able to write to me: Poste Restante, Karachi.

With much love

Your father.

 

Chapter 28: Relative safety

The city had been occupied by both Russian and German armies during the Great War, but because it was a very important religious centre for the Catholics, it had been protected until the Germans occupied the region in 1939. I found that the Jewish Ghetto had already been subject to regular Pogroms, and over the next couple of years, about 45,000 Jews were taken from the city and killed.

I spent two days brushing up on my secretarial skills and getting ready for my interview, and Anna and I also visited Helena’s friend who was a landlady in the Catholic district. She lived in a large house on Karola Szymanowskiego, just a couple of streets from the park and the museum. I thought the area was quite grand, and her house was an elegant double fronted three-storey home divided into six apartments, which were all fitted with quite comfortable furniture. After Lwow, it was positively palatial, and I would have expected it to be well outside my earnings, but when I asked Mrs Lisowski, the rent was quite low. Later I found out that Helena, ever the business-woman, had negotiated a preferential rate for me, because she would do anything for Gabriela and because of my need to a better life. It struck me that before the war, we wouldn’t have considered Gabriela and Stashek’s religion as a point of difference. Besides the wedding mass, neither they nor we had been church-goers, and Stashek was positively aetheistic, as we were. Helena also showed no sign of attending mass on the Sunday after we moved into her house, but I could see crucifixes in each room of the apartment in Mrs Lisowski’s house, and it struck me that Helena may have chosen this place purposefully.

Mrs Lisowski was a friendly woman in her fifties, with a tired expression and too much face powder under her grey hair. She wore an apron and had clearly been mopping the floor when we arrived into the hallway.

“I have always had a home help, you know, but since the occupation, it has been hard to keep staff,” she said, eyeing up Anna. “I could do with a young helper, if your daughter wanted a few hours work each week, after school. Anna, isn’t it? Well, Anna, I expect you haven’t enrolled in the local school yet, so perhaps you can give me a hand till you start?”

Anna had neither the energy nor the inclination to become a skivvy, and I wasn’t going  to allow the landlady to take advantage of her.

“Anna must study a lot, Mrs Lisowski, since she has missed a lot of school recently due to ill health. I’m not sure that she would be much use to you, even if she had the time to help.  She has to rest every day between her studies. What time is morning mass at Jasna Gora, please?” I asked in as off-hand a way as I could.

“I don’t attend mass there, Mrs Wojcik. It is a convent, you know, and it’s really only high days and Christmas when the locals go to mass there. It takes a while to get there, you know. We usually attend Niedziela, which is a lovely small church, and the priest is very devout, you know, and after all, it is much nearer. They have mass at 7am, if you want to go before work, otherwise it’s 10am. You should of course visit Jasna Gora to see the Black Madonna, which is so famous, but if you have visited before from Krakow, I’m sure you have been to pray to her, haven’t you?”

“I have been before, of course, but not for some years, and I should love to pray for peace with the Virgin.”

I was becoming self-conscious about my ignorance and resolved to ask Helena to accompany me to mass on Sunday, if she wouldn’t mind, so she could whisper instructions to me during the service. Meanwhile, I agreed the rent with Mrs Lisowski, and explained that I would not be able to pay the first month until I had started my new job, but could give her a small deposit from what I still had of Alexandre’s money. She waived my notes away.

“Helena told me you would be good for the rent and that you plan to start working at Kozlow’s next week. She has given me a deposit for you, and I have agreed to return it to her when you pay the first month’s rent. You can move in tomorrow, if that suits you. I just have to give the place the once-over before you come, and I will of course need your papers for the lodgers book.  You can’t be too careful nowadays, and the police are often here checking that I have everything up to date.”

I promised to bring her my identity papers the next day, knowing too well that this would be a pre-requisite of moving in. If I was unlucky, my ID number would be checked against my original registration as Miriam Weiner, and all would be over for me and Anna.

The next morning I presented myself for interview at Kozlow and Partners, on Radomska, which was a small and old-fashioned firm. Mr Kozlow had received my resume from Helena, such as it was, and asked why I hadn’t worked for so many years. I explained that I had been looking after young children in Krakow, and then as they grew up, my husband had been moving offices quite a lot, and we hadn’t been in one place long enough for me to stay in work. I also told him that I’d been working for the business a lot, which in the early days I had certainly helped with, and explained my understanding of accounting, shorthand and other secretarial duties. He didn’t seem perturbed by my lack of legal expertise, and he didn’t ask about Otto.  I suppose that during war, there is a level of decorum among the educated classes not to ask about one’s husband or father or son, in case they have not survived. In Mr Kozlow’s case, I think it was simply a lack of interest.

“We are only looking for someone who will work hard and always turn up, Mrs Wojcik. We do not expect specialised knowledge, and we can train you in any legal information you will need to have. I have your reference from Helena Bartosz here. We have used her firm over the last few years to recruit staff, and have always been very happy with her choices, so that reference stands for a lot.  If you want the job, it’s yours.  Please bring your ID papers with you and you can start on Monday.”

We moved into the apartment that afternoon, and I started work the following Monday. Anna was enrolled in the local Catholic school to start on the same day, and for the first time in two years, I felt safe.

Helena had been wonderfully supportive, and though she didn’t agree to attend mass with me, she sent Emelia along with Anna and me, and the children whispered throughout the mass, and I followed their lead. Within a couple of weeks, I had the prayers and responses learned by heart, and I began to take communion.

The Apartment was luxurious after Lvov, and we managed to settle in quickly. Every day I cooked our dinner, and we lounged comfortably in our small sitting room. Anna’s health started to improve, especially as there was some lunch provided at school, and her whole demeanour improved once she was able to spend more time with girls her age, albeit Catholics. She even brought one or two children home after school to keep her company while I finished my day at work, and they seemed to accept the new girl without any questions about her past.

Within two weeks, everything seemed to be quite stable. I was paid by Mr Kozlow and  settled up with Mrs Lisowski for the first month’s rent, and she then paid back Helena. I went to early mass every day and was already becoming friendly with other congregants, albeit without giving away much about our lives. Despite the blissful relief of living as a Catholic in a Nazi occupied town, where nobody suspected my Jewish origins, I had to contend with anti-Semitic conversations every day at work and even at church. It was strange to find that as soon as I was assumed to be a Catholic, the true nature of this bigotry was opened up to me. I even had to pretend that I agreed with it, laughing at Jewish jokes or smiling when told that some Jews had been arrested. The old lady from further down Karola Szymanowskiego, who also went to seven o’clock mass, told me that she’d found out that some Jews were hiding in a neighbour’s attic. She’d had no qualms about reporting them to the Gestapo officer who hung about at the café on the corner. It seems he was stationed there, every morning, with his newspaper and coffee, and his main job was to listen to gossip and to note down anything suspicious.

“So I told him to get himself along to number 23, and to ask the lady who lives there to show him around. At the top of the stairs, there’s a cupboard which has a false wall at the back, and apparently there’s a staircase up to the attic behind there, and there’s a whole family living in her attic. I heard it from my friend who lives next door. They thought they had rats in their roof, and when they were up in the eaves, checking what was causing the noise, they heard whispering, and apparently, they could see the glow of candlelight through a hole in the wall. It didn’t take long for them to figure out what was going on. Those bloody Yids! They’ve got some nerve, hiding out in a good Catholic neighbourhood.”

“But what will happen to the lady who has been harbouring them?” I asked.

“Who knows, lovey. She must have known the risks. They’ve been clearing out the Ghetto, and I suppose some of them sneaked out at night and they must have either forced her to take them in, or maybe she’s a Jew too. You never know, do you?”

“But don’t you think that the Gestapo will take her away and jail her, or maybe worse?”

“She only got her just deserts, I say. And don’t you agree, we have to help them get rid of the Jews from Czestochowa, so that the Nazis will leave us in peace? And besides, what did the Jews ever do for us? Just a bunch of money-grubbing trouble-makers if you ask me. They’re dirty, and they don’t make any effort to mix in here. I heard that they’ve got gold and diamonds hidden in those houses in the ghetto. Good riddance, I say!”

While I had to pretend I didn’t care about this sort of repugnant bigotry, I was much more concerned when Helena told me that she had been asked for a list of all the people who she has on her books, together with their identity numbers. The Germans were, in their typically thorough way, cross-checking the identity numbers against travel permits and with the registrations on file. If she gave them my number, it would only be a matter of time before I would be discovered as Miriam Weiner.

“I haven’t been able to provide them with all my files, Miriam. You understand that my records are not completely up to date, and also, there are a number of documents which were damaged by a small flood I had in the office recently…”

“Helena, I am indebted to you for your discretion and help. I appreciate how big a risk it is not to report me.”

“I will let you know if they come back looking for more information. However, I can’t hold out on them if they go to Mr Kozlow, and he supplies them with a list of names and ID numbers for people whom I have put forward to him. You are, I presume, always ready to move on quickly?”

“Of course. But I have not felt so safe as this in two years, and I hope I can remain here.”

Chapter 27: Moving on

The next day we spent talking about the future. Gabriela was concerned about my new identity being unmasked in Krakow, since I had so many friends and acquaintances who would recognise me, and quickly alert the Gestapo, either intentionally, or by association. It was not obvious to me initially that there would be informers among the Jewish population, though Gabriela told me that it was so, but apparently the Gestapo’s level of influence, through so many pressures they brought to bear on people, was enormous. There were shop keepers whom I had known to say hello to, who held accounts in Otto and my names, who would recognise me, and would also be in the pay of the Gestapo, or under threat of arrest for non-co-operation. If I were to be seen on the street by someone who greeted me, the next thing might b a knock at Gabriela’s door from the SS.

“Miriam, I know you want to work, and it is possible to work in an office now, since you have Catholic documentation. There are probably jobs to be had for good secretaries, but you cannot afford to be recognized. I speak as a Catholic who knows the mind of my neighbour. Whilst many are indifferent to the Jews’ plight, there are more who feel that while the Nazis have been focused on rounding up the Jews, they have left the Catholics alone. When the troops arrived here, after you’d left, they persecuted our priests and so many were arrested, and even though Pope Pius has done a lot to help Jews escape from Hitler’s attacks, he has kept his head down when it comes to denouncing the Nazis publicly. I think that if you are known to catholics in Krakow, quite quickly, you will be known to the Gestapo, who are cracking down on people with false papers here.”

“That is valuable to know. I will have to consider moving on, as I must become independent, and the last thing I want is to put you in any danger for harbouring Jews. I heard in Lwow that the labour camps are being used for mass killings, and that ghettos are being set up across Poland to help the Nazis coral all the Jews, so they can be sent to their deaths. That’s the story coming from refugees who were arriving into Lwow in the last month or so. It’s going to be unsafe everywhere, but from what you say, it will be more unsafe where I can be recognized.”

“So I have been thinking. Would you consider coming with me to visit Helena, to see Emilia. You remember Helena coming to dinner with me and Stashek at your invitation a couple of years ago. She is very able and well connected in Czestochowa and I can write to her to tell her than my friend Miriam Wojcik is coming with me because she would like to move for work. Helena can look for an apartment for you and Anna, and may know of a job that would suit you, since she’s been running an office which deals with recruitment across the city. She will know you are Jewish, but she will not tell anyone.”

“Thank you, Gabriela. That would be ideal. Bjut is it a slow process to access a travel permit to visit?”

“For me, I can easily get a one-day pass which is enough for my monthly visit to Emilia. You would probably be able to do the same, but just not return to Krakow. I doubt that the authorities in Czestochowa would be checking on whether you returned to Krakow, and you have not registered your presence here, so nobody at this end would be looking for you to be here. The Gestapo is incredibly thorough, so I presume the only issue will be whether your ticket from Lwow to here will be checked.”

“Well, let’s do as you say. Can you send a letter to Helena, and I will keep a low profile till we travel, so as not to be reecognised. I would so dearly like to be able to get into the apartment and see if our belongings are still there. I would love to replace my clothing and Annas. Also, I would like to contact Celestyna because she is looking after some of our valuables, and since I have none of my jewelry left, I would be perhaps able to raise some cash from the sale of one or two things.”

“Miriam, if you are short, I can help you a little, and Helena will make sure that until you are employed, you won’t starve.”

 

Within two days, we were boarding a tain to Czestochowa, with Gabriela, on a day pass. When we got to Helena’s, Anna and Emilia were like two sisters, and I was heartened to see Anna smile for the first time in months. Helena was as I remembered her: a tall, stern, middle-aged woman with a straight back and her hair tied up in a tight bun. She wore a dark suit, and seemed very focused on her work.

“Good afternoon, Miriam. I’m so pleased you could come. I so much enjoyed meeting you before the war, and to hear about Otto’s business. I had hoped to open an office in Krakow with Gabriela and Stashek’s help, before everything changed. Now I am struggling to keep our business running here. Gabriela’s letter told me that you were coming for work, and would welcome my help with accommodation.”

“Yes, I would be most grateful of any help you can give us.” I pulled my forged papers from the handbag Gabriela had leant me and passed them to Helena. “As you can see, I am a Catholic and if possible I would like to move into the area around Jasna Gora, so that I can attend daily mass. I’ve been reading as much as possible in some of Gabriela’s books to make sure I will fit in.”

“I have a friend who rents rooms, and she will be able to find you something. But first you may be interested in a secretarial job I am trying to fill, in a firm of solicitors. They need shorthand and good typing speeds. I expect you may be a bit rusty, but I have a typewriter upstairs, and I have made you a bed in our spare room. It should help you to sette for a couple of days while you prepare for your interview, and I will invite my friend over to meet you here. I hope that is all acceptable to you. I felt it would be best to make advance plans.”

“Helena, you have dome so much for us, and we don’t want to impose on you, but this is so very generous. You’re right, I will been to practise my typing and shorthand before I can apply for secretarial work, not to mention Anna and me attending mass with someone who can guide us through the service.”

“good. That’s settled then.” And Helena went to make tea for Gabriela and me while the girls played in Emilia’s room. From that moment, Helena never asked me a question about the past, and never referred to my Jewish origins even in private.

I said a fond farewell to Gabriela, when she left to catch the late train home, and I could see how upset she was to leave Emilia behind as she returned to Krakow.

Chapter 26: Krakow (2)

Gabriela woke me with a mug of hot tea, which had sugar in it. Something I hadn’t tasted for over a year. Then she put two bowls of bigos on the table and I woke Anna to have something to eat. The food was rich and spicy, and I quickly began to feel nauseous because I was so unused to meat. Anna couldn’t eat her food, as she was so tired, and she too felt sick

“And where is Emilia, Gabriela? Is she already in bed? Anna would love to see her I’m sure.”

“No, I’m afraid she isn’t here. It hasn’t really been safe here in Krakow for a long time, and I didn’t want her to be on her own when they closed the schools. She’s living with my sister Helena, in Czestochowa, and I visit when I can get a travel permit. Stashek has been in England for some months now, where he has joined up with the Polish Free Army. We rarely hear from one another, because there is only sporadic post, and it is impossible to phone abroad. He would like me to join him there, but I have found it impossible to travel, and so we live apart. But tell me, Miriam, have you heard from Otto?”

“Gabriela, I have so much to talk about with you. Let me first take Anna up to bed, if I may, and then we can talk more.” I didn’t want to discuss Otto in front of Anna, and besides, she was badly in need of sleep now.

“Sorry, Miriam, what a poor hostess I make. Please let me offer Anna Emilia’s room. The bed is made up and there’s hot water if she would like a bath.”

“Hot Water! Do you hear that, Anna?”

But Anna was so tired I decided that we would leave bathing till the morning. I took her upstairs and put her to bed in Emilia’s bed, and for the first time in so long, she was able to curl up under the covers with a soft toy. Despite her fourteen years, she looked like a small sick child, lying there with her white face against the pillow. She smiled at me when I bent to kiss her goodnight. “I’m so glad we’re back home again, mamushu. If only we could have our own house back, and then everything would be alright.”

“Sleep now, Anna darling, and in the morning, we’ll see what we can do about finding somehere of our own to live. We must put our best foot forward, and we need to find you a school. I need to ask aunti Gabriela who is here and whether there is anywhere I can get work. Now go to sleep. I’ll be up myself soon.”

For the next hour, I told Gabriela about our flight from Krakow, through Naleczow to Lwow, and about the family, all of whom she knew well. For her part, Gabriela told me about life in Krakow under German occupation, and how part of Podgorze had become a ghetto for thousands of Jews behind a newly built wall, and how the SS guarded it like a prison, regularly tearing people from their homes and taking them away for work parties in the city. There were apparently groups of Jews who were trying to resist, and regular skirmishes by the ZOB, a youth movement, which found ways in and out of the ghetto. Living on the gentile side of the wall was relatively bearable, and Gabriela was able to draw money from their bank account, though it was now in Reichsmarks and the exchange rate with the Zloty was ridiculous she said. I wondered if Otto’s domestic account was still accessible. Each month he had deposited my allowance, and perhaps I could now obtain funds. But that would mean using my married name, for which I no longer had papers, and besides, Gabriela told me that the accounts owned by Jewish families had been cleaned out long ago.

“So, now we are alone, tell me when did you last hear from Otto?”

“I have heard nothing in almost two years. When war was declared, he demanded I return to Poland from Paris, when I intended taking Anna to London with Max and Tom. Meanwhile he wasn’t intending on returning from Hungary, and had some hair-brained scheme to enlist in his old regiment, which I assume he did. If I had only ignored his demands, I would have been safe and with all my children, and not trapped in hell. If I hadn’t made it from Naleczow to Lwow with Ania and Paul and their families, and Maryla too with her children, we would all have been arrested as Jews. And once we were in Lwow, under Russian control, life was miserable.”

“Stashek was in touch with Otto in Hungary last year, before he left Poland. Otto was trying to contact you and he couldn’t find out where you were. We didn’t know, and Otto was hoping that Olek might know someone in the diplomatic service who could find you.”

“Yes, he does, or rather he did. Conrad Brzozowski was his name, and he was very helpful to Maryla when we first arrived in Lwow, giving her money, which Olek had asked him to do, and eventually arranging some papers for her, Stephen and Anita, to join Olek in Danzig. I gave them letters for Otto, and that was the last I heard from them. Unfortunately, Brzozowski was taken away by the NKVD soon after that, because of his political connections, and I doubt he is still alive. If Maryla joined Olek, she would have given him details of where we were living, and if Olek and Otto were in touch, which I assume they would have been, then Otto should have received my letters and must have known where we were.”

“Perhaps, but I am sure it would not have been possible to contact you without some contacts who could travel freely between Danzig and Lwow. “

“Gabriela, I have for some time given up on Otto, and it is no use speculating about what he could or couldn’t have done. I just need to manage on my own now, and with the help of some remarkable people whom I met in Lwow, it has been possible to survive all this time.”

“And how did you manage to travel from Lwow. I hear that Hitler’s declaration of war on Stalin has meant that the Russians are retreating and the Nazis are advancing on Lwow.”

“And they have now taken Lwow. In fact, as I boarded the train yesterday, they were in the Jewish quarter, rounding people up and pushing them into lorries.”

I then told Gabriela the whole story about Alexandre coming to our rescue, though I didn’t paint too much of a picture of my past association with him, since I must assume that anything I say to her will be passed to Stashek, and then on to Otto. Though frankly, at this point, I do ask my self whether I care that he might know.  It was, after all, Stashek who originally introduced me to Alexandre, as they had both been soldiers together in the Great War, and  he and Gabriela knew him well enough. Alexandre had once  told me that Stashek had asked him about me, and whether he was behaving ‘honourably’ towards me, but otherwise there was no reason to suppose that he or Gabriela knew about us at all. We had only met a few times when I was in Vienna, and never with them after that first introduction.

“So Alexandre Roskov, who is now an SS Captain, is in Lwow with the vanguard of the invading forces, and his unit is responsible for supervising the arrest of Jews, and yet he helped you to escape his own men. That is a miracle.  Why would he risk so much for a Jewess?  I always knew him to be a fair-minded man, and could not begin to understand how someone like that could cope with Fascism. And he made the arrangements for you to receive forged papers in the name of a Catholic, in one night, so that you could escape from the enemy in the last moments before they would have hauled you off to a labour camp.  It truly is a miracle. An with your new name – Wojcik, you say – you are effectively as free to travel as I am. Amazing!”

“Yes, that’s true. But with that name, I am now unable to access my past. I’m no longer Miriam Weiner, and any of my Jewish friends who are still here will almost certainly be living in that Ghetto you told me about, poor wretches. My money is not available to me, and I have nowhere to live, and no work. Gabriela, I’m at your mercy I’m afraid.”

“OK, let’s sleep on that and in the morning, when you’ve had time to enjoy some home comforts, and I’ve found some clothes for you and Anna, we can talk about the future. For now, I am deeply grateful to whatever angel has looked over you.”

“Thank you. I’m afraid I lost what faith I had when I saw what atrocities have been perpetrated against innocent people. There is no God that could let happen what I have seen.”

Chapter 25: Krakow

The journey was interminable, as the train was stopped three times for identity checks. Each time I cowered before the Gestapo officer who came with his escort of SS to check everyone’s documents, but thankfully everyone else in the compartment seemed as scared as I was. But with Alexandre’s papers and permits, we arrived in the late afternoon without difficulty into Główny. The station had changed. Not physically, but the place was teeming with soldiers, all in Nazi uniforms, and we saw few civilians who weren’t either walking fast with their heads down or queuing at gates to have their papers checked. The station café was occupied by SS officers, and nobody else, and the whole place seemed like a barracks. I could see swastikas everywhere I turned.

There was no choice but to walk, but then it was so long since we’d used a taxi or driven in a car, I might have chosen to walk even if we’d been offered a lift to the house. It was late June and the sun beat down on us as we walked. It felt more oppressive than it should have done. After all, it was a beautiful summer’s day and Krakow, my home town, was still the same place. But bricks and mortar don’t make a city what it is. The boulevards were lined with army paraphernalia and tanks drove up Stradomska towards Wawel Castle, as though they planned to destroy it with their shells. It might have stood for eight hundred years, but then I was sure it would take a few hours to reduce it to rubble, along with the Jewsih quarter to which we were headed.

Avoiding the main square, where there were squads of marching soldiers and large numbers of armoured vehicles, we walked the mile to Kazimierz through back streets, with our heads down and covered in scarves. Turning onto Szeroka street, with its familiar plaza and gardens, surrounded by bars and cafes, I had to stop and hold onto a railing as I began to feel faint with fear. The Jewish quarter I had known and loved since childhood was unrecognisable. It had been turned into a Nazi social centre, full of revellers and prostitutes, and the bars were spilling grey uniforms onto the pavements. When eventually we made it into Gazowa, and could see the Vistula flowing swiftly in the evening light ahead of us, I pulled Anna quietly into a narrow passage opposite our apartment. We stood quietly, watching. There were German soldiers on the pavement outside, and a large army jeep parked in the driveway. The anti-Semitic graffiti which I remembered from eighteen months ago was still visible on the gate, though it had faded.

“Mamushu, why can’t we go indoors? I’m tired of walking and I want to go to see my room again.”

“Shhh. We can’t go in, because it looks like there are soldiers living in the house. Let’s just wait here and see whether we will be able to go in or not.”

There were lights on in the lounge windows on the first floor, and it was clearly occupied. We didn’t have to wait long. Within minutes, the door opened and three SS Officers came out, chatting and smoking, and strolled towards the bar on the corner.

“I’m sorry, darling. I know you’re tired, but we can’t go home now.” I whispered to Anna, who had said nothing, though I could see her chin begin to shake and a tear ran down her cheek. “Remember we changed our name only yesterday to Wojcik.  If we were to go into the house now, they would arrest us as Weiners and we would be taken to jail.”

Anna was used to saying nothing, and doing exactly as she was told. “We’ll have to visit someone else’s house tonight, and see whether we can stay somewhere else for a while. I know, we’ll try the Frankels. You remember Emilia. You used to play together. They live across the river.”

We crept out of the alleyway and in the dark, crossed the river to Podgorze, a quiet leafy suburb where Stashek and Gabriela lived. Otto and Stashek had been school friends, though Stashek’s parents were good Catholics, and we’d been invited to their wedding. Gabriela had always been one of my confidantes. She was very intelligent and understood much more than I told her about Otto and me. We used to dine with them regularly before the war, in that different world, where I spent so much time and money on dinner parties. When there were not endless lines of starving people waiting for a bowl of gruel, and when I had nothing more in my mind than how to occupy my time with social entertainment.

Their street was some distance from the river, and we were becoming more tired as we walked. Neither of us had eaten much, since there was little to buy in Lwow, and once we’d arrived in Krakow, all we wanted was to get home. Now it was growing dark, and we crept along in the shadows. There were few people on the street, and I realized that perhaps there was a curfew. But it wasn’t late, and this smart suburb was probably being used by senior Nazi officers and their families. Indeed, we’d seen one or two smart cars drive into the gates of houses as we passed. Stashek was, as far as I knew, conscripted, and so he might well be gone. He could, heaven help him, be dead, and Gabriela would have been thrown out of their home by now. I hoped desperately that they would be at home still. To my great relief, Gabriela opened the door as soon as I knocked.

“My God! Miriam… and Anna. I hardly recognized you. Come in. You look… exhausted.”

Gabriela was shocked at seeing us. Of course, she had probably assumed that we had been taken off to a labour camp, having been in Nazi occupied Poland since the start of the war. She looked well and smartly dressed, and we looked like two tramps, emaciated and dirty. Our clothes, though fairly clean, were torn and worn, and Anna looked like a ghost of her former self, as well as being six or eight inches taller. I suddenly caught sight of my face in the hall mirror. It was the first time I’d seen myself reflected in weeks, or rather the first time I had looked. There was an old woman, who looked like a skivvy. My hair was completely grey, which it hadn’t been when Gabriela last saw me. Though I had my colour done once a week in the thirties, it was only to cover one or two stray grey hairs. My face was deeply lined, and my eyebrows had grown bushy.

“Miriam, where have you been? How have you managed? And how did you get here without being arrested? Oh God, it’s such a relief to see you both.” She took me in her arms, and I began to cry. I shook and cried and couldn’t stop. I knew it was relief that brought me to tears, but once the dam had burst, I couldn’t hold back the waters, and Gabriela had to lead us to her lounge, where we collapsed into the soft sofa. She handed me a clean white handkerchief, and I stroked the fine fabric for a while, just for the pleasure of touching it. Anna was already curling up onto the sofa, like a cat looking for comfort.

“I’ll make us some tea. I wish I could offer you something stronger. You look like you need it. I haven’t a great deal of food, but I’ll heat up the bigos. I know it’s pork, but you’re not Kosher, are you, and you both look like you need some good food.”

“Thank you, Gabriela. You don’t know how much it means to find you. It has been so long. Everything has been so . . . difficult . . . “ And I couldn’t help myself but began to cry again. Gabriela left us while she went to the kitchen to make tea, and I was glad she did. Anna had fallen asleep immediately, and I was able then to sit in silence, in the safety and familiarity of a comfortable room, in a peaceful house on a quiet street, knowing that I wasn’t in immediate danger, with my new identity. I felt sick, and immensely tired, but the relief was like a wave of warm water washing over me. I closed my eyes and must have dozed.

Chapter 24: Leaving Lwow (4)

The next morning, we carried our few possessions and left the house without anything to eat. Alexandre had given me some Zlotys and Reichsmarks, as well as 25 Roubles, which he had kindly acquired for me when he bought the train tickets. He said I could use either the Zlotys or Reichsmarks in Krakow but that people in Krakow would not take the Roubles. If all went well at the station, my Roubles would not be much use to us by the end of the day, and if the Russian retreat continued as it had, the whole of Poland would become German occupied territory and Reichsmarks would become the legal tender. For 25 Roubles, I could buy more food than we had seen in a long time, including bread and fruit, if there was any to be had. It was the first time in months I’d had any Zlotys and I had no idea what they would now buy in Krakow.

The room which had been our home for eighteen months was as bare as the day we arrived, and I had no hesitation in walking out without looking back. I felt very emotional about leaving behind the fear of being Jewish in Lwow, and the fear of starvation, but I was determined to make sure Alexandre’s great kindness was not in vain.

“Anna. Before we go, I need to tell you that this is going to be difficult and scary. The Nazis are going to be asking us questions and checking our papers, and we must never, ever, say that we are Jewish again. Do you understand me? You are Anna Wojcik, and we are Catholics. You must not be scared, as I will protect you. Don’t answer questions from soldiers. I will answer. Don’t stop to watch anything you see which involves the SS officers. Keep your head down and keep close by my side. We will be home again in Krakow by tonight, if we are lucky.”

Already a Ukrainian family who had been sharing Mrs Wojcik’s rooms with several other refugees was carrying their meagre belongings up the stairs to our room, as we came down. The front door no longer had a lock, and was banging in the wind, though the day was hot. It was a Sunday, and I thought momentarily of going to the Catholic church to pray, or at least to be seen greeting the priest. As soon as we got to the corner, I realized how stupid I was being. The streets were awash with people, all bent on walking out of Lwow, as the German soldiers marched in. The noise and smell were overpowering, and we had to dodge our way between handcarts and men with large sacks over their shoulders. Women carried small children, and many people were bare-foot. They would not get far, though I doubted that the Germans would be trying to stop them from leaving, unless these were Jews, destined for arrest.

We had only been walking for a few minutes towards the station when we passed a group of Jewish people kneeling in the street with their hands above their heads, surrounded by German soldiers in grey uniforms, pointing guns at them. Each had the Star of David stitched onto their slieve or breast, and they were all terrified. We hurried past with our heads down, as an empty truck screeched to a halt beside them and the soldiers roughly handed them into the back, ignoring their infirmity, or the helplessness of the children.

I thought of Alexandre’s warning that they had lists of all the Jews to round up. My name and address was obviously on one of their lists, since I had worked at the soup kitchen, and no doubt, shortly, soldiers would arrive in Arkhypenka Street to begin clearing the quarter, house by house. It was no more than half a mile away, and they were clearly working quickly and methodically. They would probably be looking for Miriam Weiner within hours, if not already, but I was no longer her. I was Miriam Wojcik, and that small change could save my life.

We heard shots in one or two of the houses we passed, and we saw some people, who ran from their houses, being shot in the street. Their bodies were left in the gutter as soldiers ran past them into the houses. Screams and cries came from windows, and I even glimpsed someone climb out of a third floor window and jump to their death below. This carnage was more shocking than anything I’d seen from the NKVD.

We walked for half an hour, and stopped twice to buy food from street vendors, neither of whom spent long haggling, since they seemed more intent on packing up their stalls. We approached the station with trepidation, and already the German soldiers surrounded the entrance, and had taken over the ticket office. We queued for a few minutes and as we came to the head of the line, I realised that this was the first test of the forged papers. The young Nazi who took my papers and the train tickets for the mid-day Krakow train looked at the photo and into my face, and then handed me the papers and ushered us through the barrier. If he could have known how fast my heart beat, we would have been questioned, but everything passed muster and we were onto the platform.