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.

Chapter 24: Leaving Lwow (3)

“Without the right papers, you cannot travel, but if you have a catholic identity, you can easily move out of the ghetto and you can travel, perhaps to Krakow where you have people you know well. You know I will always help you if I can. I have made enquiries, and I have still got some good friends here. I have arranged to buy some new identity papers for you both, and some travel permits. They will be drawn up tonight by a reliable man I have found, who deals in these things, and I can return later with them, provided I have all the information I need now. You must choose a suitable surname, and you must give me your ages, and an address I can use. How old is young Anna?”

“She’s thirteen. But Alexandre, isn’t this very dangerous for you, helping us? Will you not be found out? Also, I’m so sorry but I cannot afford to pay for these papers.”

“Miriam, I have to live with myself in this uniform. Do you think I could live with myself if I didn’t try to get you to safety?”

I had become so terrified of being picked up by the NKVD since the closure of the soup kitchen, and because of what had happened to Paul, I would have done anything for some forged papers for myself, and Anna, that did not show us as Jews. Many people in the quarter had traded their possessions, or their bodies, for such papers, and most had been let down by poor fakes or by false promises. I had almost given in to the temptation to accept an offer through my dentist contact to trade the diamond he knew about for papers, but had resisted, on the grounds that I didn’t trust him enough. Now, my salvation had arrived in the form of a man I could trust absolutely, and someone who would do everything in his power to ensure our safety.

“Mrs Wojcik was my neighbour, and she’s moved in with her sister. She’s a Catholic and it is an easy name to remember. Wojcik. Miriam Wojcik, aged 41, from Krakow. Do you think it is enough? Can you really have papers made that will fool the guards at the station or soldiers on the roadblocks? I can’t believe it might be possible. I don’t know how I can ever…” I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer, and there was nothing I could say that would express my gratitude. I handed him our documents in my married name, Weiner, and he took these as they had our photographs, and so that the forger could alter our names and address. Szeroka street is in the Jewish quarter in Krakow, so I gave Celestyna’s address, which is in a Catholic neighbourhood, and at least if the Gestapo called there, and she was at home, she would have the sense not to give us away. I could visit her if we had papers, and let her know. I had no idea how this would all be effected, but after what Alexandre had told me, these papers as they stood would be arrest warrants, and so would be no use to us again.

Alexandre left me his handkerchief and stepped quietly out of the room, saying he’d return as soon as he could.

True to his word, he returned two hours later, once it was dark, with papers in the name of Wojcik, for myself and Anna, together with travel permits and train tickets to Krakow. I had no idea how he had managed this since the station was in the hands of the NKVD, but Alexandre was always well connected in Lwow, and I could only assume he knew a local Pole who did a lot of the work for him in booking our tickets, once the papers were forged. I had never looked overtly Jewish, and my new identity as a Catholic Pole, gave me some protection. The papers were, as far as I could tell, as genuine as the originals, and had probably costs a great deal. By the time Alexandre arrived, it was very late. I stood shivering on the landing, and whispered my thanks into his collar, as he held me. We both knew in our hearts that this might be our last private moment, ever. How could we hope to meet again in Vienna or Berlin or Krakow in peacetime? How could he and I both survive this war in our respective places, on opposite sides of the chasm, which Hitler’s ambitions had created? Alexandre looked all his 45 years and more, and he must be so tired. His poise was gone, his happiness too. Could he outlive this tragedy, and could we maybe see one another again? When Otto seemed to have deserted his family and failed us, only this man had come to our rescue, at any cost. I knew then, as I had known before, one true feeling for him, and I told him what I had never dared before, that I loved him.

Then, like a ghost, he’d gone and I crept back into the bed with Anna, to plan for the next day.

Chapter 23: The tide turning

Ada was destitute now that Paul was gone, and had no work herself. Ania and Isidor had been gone six months, and we had no idea whether they made it across the border, or if they were languishing in some jail, or slaving a labour camp, or had been buried in a mass grave after being executed. If anyone could pull strings, Isidor could, so we had to assume that they were OK. It would have been unbearable to think that both my siblings were beyond help. Paul, my beloved younger brother, might be working in Siberia, since it was still summer, or perhaps he didn’t make the journey. He might have escaped, or he might still be in prison. No knowing was depressing. If he survived the torture they had undoubtedly subjected him to, and if he survived the journey, and then the back-breaking work they would make him do, he’d then have to survive a Siberian winter in a hut or hovel, and that would dwarf all other suffering.

Anka joined Ada and me and we pooled our small amount of Roubles, which would last for a week or so, to buy bread and vegetables. Anka had found some work washing and mending clothes for a black market trader who specialised in pillaging the homes of arrested people, or worse. She hated him for his work, and hated herself for supporting it, but he paid her in cash, as well as letting her choose items from his horde. She brought home clothes for Anna, and shared her meagre pay with us. I considered selling my diamond, as I had so many times, but decided to hang on a little longer.

Tensions were mounting between the Jews and the Ukrainians since there was so little work and most people were starving. The Jews were seen by the OUN to be exploiting the Russian occupation, taking jobs, which had formerly been for Ukrainians. I found it hard to accept, since there were almost no Jewish employees in the civic offices, none in the police, and few working in the remaining shops either. Nevertheless, the NKVD were now employing Poles in the prisons and I heard from Anka that the Ukrainians who came to her boss for clothing talked about wanting the Germans to come and take over, to ‘get rid of those Jewish Bolsheviks.’

Whatever was going on in political circles and whoever was joining one underground movement or another, it was clear that we couldn’t keep going any longer.

“Ada, do you have anything left to sell? I have only one piece of jewelry left, and that’s the diamond from my mother’s engagement ring. I doubt anyone would pay what it’s worth or even a fraction of what it’s worth.”

“I haven’t anything now. Two weeks ago, I got just 25 Roubles for my last pair of diamond earrings, from that thief of a money-lender in the square. I was then followed all the way to my lodgings by some OUN men who must have seen the transaction. I wanted to keep some of the money, but I dared not, so I bought food and a pair of shoes.”

“I’m worried that if the wind changes direction, the OUN will start hounding us. Sorry, Anka, but there seems to be more and more anti-Semitic behaviour among your people nowadays.”

“My people? Who is my people? You are my people, and I don’t care what religeon you have or don’t have, Miriam.”

“OK, I know, and I’m sorry. I meant the Ukrainians who seem bent on getting rid of the Jews.  But I do think you’ll be under pressure to avoid us in public if this goes on much longer.”

“Since when was I bothered by what people think? Didn’t I put myself on the line with Boris for Paul? Besides, there’s meant to be over 100,000 Jews here now, and that’s a lot more than the Ukrainians. You have us outnumbered,” she laughed.

A week later, news came through on Lwow Radio, and spread out across the city like wildfire, that the German army had attacked Russians on their border, effectively breaking the agreement by which they had partitioned Poland. Russia had been attacking its neighbours in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, and had been moving into Rumania, trying to take more land. Since we knew that France had fallen to Germany, and that Hitler had most of Europe under his control, it seemed that Russia was his next target. Initially, He seemed ready to let Stalin take over more of the Baltic states, so that Russia could keep supplying Germany with raw materials, but that clearly wasn’t his plan. The radio news said that there was a massive refugee movement going on with people pouring out of Rumania towards Germany, and that the Russians were stripping the refugees of their possessions as the fled, and the Germans were caught with the destitute influx at a time when they had shortages themselves. The Bolsheviks didn’t want to leave anything worth having for the German invaders and were burning and looting whatever was left, in their retreat east.

“Anka, what should we do if the Nazis reach Lwow? I think we will all be rounded up and executed.”

“We should flee, but we’ll be stopped at the gates. The NKVD is already on high alert.”

“But what do we do? If we wait till the Russians are defeated or if they leave us to the Nazis, we will have nowhere to run.”

“Miriam. Couldn’t you use your last diamond to buy some papers? Something that makes you a Christian, and maybe some travel permits? I’m not so concerned for myself. If the Russians leave, I will leave with them. I can go back to my birthplace and try to live off the land, if they open the gates, that is. But for you and Ada and Anna, there’s going to be precious little hope under Hitler’s rule. Maybe you should try to get something forged.”

“Yes.  I should try now, I know.”

 

Two days later, the NKVD started rounding people up, almost without discrimination, and force marching them out of Lwow, on the road east. Then there was almost continuous gunfire from the prison on Zamarstynowska, inside the yard where executions always took place. It went on all day, and it became clear that they were massacring prisoners, rather than letting them go, since all the NKVD officers were starting to leave. The OUN attacked the prison in the afternoon and managed to get in. They were trying to stop the killings of their relatives who had been locked up there for weeks. For a time, they seemed to wrest control from the officers, who were in disarray, but then the Russians moved back in and we heard explosions inside the building. The Germans were closing in on the city and vast numbers of refugees were already leaving on foot, with the retreating Russian army. We did not know what we could do to save ourselves, and even though I asked anyone I could trust, who was still in the city, nobody offered to help me with buying false papers.  The Dentist could have helped, and Isidor would have know who to turn to, but it was unlikely that anyone capable would still be in Lwow.  They’d have done their best work forging travel permits for themselves and would have left by now.