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.”

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