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 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.