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 Seven: Nord Express (2)

The train had left Paris on time, but the journey seemed a great deal slower than usual. Though we dozed for an hour at a time, we were woken by the guard at almost every station, to show our papers, as we had been told to expect. The Belgian border checks were slow, and we stopped in Bruxelles Nord for about fifteen minutes while soldiers checked our papers

At the German border, there were several soldiers in grey uniforms and some Gestapo police in their black leather coats checking people’s documents carefully. Everyone watched nervously out of the windows as they took several people off the train, handing each person down onto the platform into the clutches of two soldiers. One man struggled to escape the grip of the two soldiers who had him by the arms. He was a respectable looking gentleman in his forties I would say, in a tweed coat and homburg, despite the mild temperatures. It seemed that his family was still on the train, as he kept looking back towards our carriage, and I thought I could hear cries from a compartment two or three down from ours. He began shouting at the soldiers to let him go, and struggling against them. He managed to escape the hold of one of them, and made to return to the train, but the other was a burly soldier with an iron grip, and clearly he was ready for a struggle. The first soldier pulled his rifle strap from his shoulder, lifted the weapon high and struck the man between the shoulder blades with the butt of it, there in front of us. The man fell to his knees, right outside our compartment. It was shocking to see, and I held Anna to me and covered her eyes, but watched as they picked the man up again and dragged him into an office. There were other incidents further down the platform, which we couldn’t see clearly, and at one point I heard a woman cry out the name of her child, as she was pulled from the train.

Soon, I could hear compartment doors being slid open, and when it came to our turn, the doorway was filled with a huge man in SS uniform, who looked like a gymnast or footballer, with a very short haircut, a square jaw and blue eyes which barely moved beneath the grey metal helmet he was wearing. He stepped aside to let a Gestapo policeman pass into the compartment. who had thin white hair, and a pinched face. He exuded menace, and his attention to each traveler and their papers seemed intense. He asked us whether we were planning to disembark at any point in Germany, and I said ‘no’ rather than mention our intention to leave the train in Berlin. He examined the papers of all the travellers except, of course, the two officers, who didn’t bother to look up or break their conversation to acknowledge the intrusion. I was surprised that the Gestapo man didn’t ask what our purpose for travel was. In fact, he seemed to be checking only that our papers were in order, and that none of us was disembarking in Germany. It was a slow process, but eventually the whistle was blown and the train groaned and shuddered before lurching out of the station. I breathed a great sigh of relief as we gathered speed, and actually exchanged a smile with the young Czech woman, who was obviously extremely nervous throughout the ordeal.

Besides the two officers from our compartment, who disembarked in Cologne, I saw very few travellers leaving. The young couple left our compartment, to find the restaurant car, and then there were only the two of us, and the old couple. They didn’t do more than smile kindly at Anna, who was by that point asleep across my lap. I sat on in silence, in the dim light of the wall lamp. We should, by rights have had the compartment to ourselves so that we would by now have been asleep in our couchettes. But with all the stops and the very full compartment, it wasn’t appropriate to unfurl the bedding, and we agreed with the guard that we would wait until after Berlin to see if there was more space. As a consequence, for those last three or four hours, I was unable to sleep and resigned myself to a wakeful night. The train stopped twice more in the German countryside, in the middle of nowhere in pitch darkness, and pulling the blind away from the window, I couldn’t see any lights or other sign of human habitation, though I pressed my face to the window.

When we finally pulled into Berlin in the early light of morning, the elderly couple sat on in the compartment, even though we had been told by our guard that there would be several hours’ delay here. They clearly had no reason to leave the train, and were probably terrified of setting foot in Berlin. I woke Anna, brushed her hair and tidied her few belongings into the satchel while the train pulled to a stop and released clouds of steam into the cold morning air.

While in Vichy, I had been told by the Holtzers that Olek was in Berlin, apparently waiting for Maryla to join him from Krakow. We’d exchanged telegrams whilst I was at the Georges Cinq, as it occurred to me that I would possibly see Maryla before he did and I wanted to know if he planned to come to Krakow soon. When he heard I was travelling home on the Nord Express, he knew I’d be stopping for a while in Germany and he had asked if we would meet him there during the break in our journey, as he told me that the train was no longer going straight through Berlin. He would meet us off the train, and advised that we go with him to an Hotel, as the Anhalter Bahnhof station was not a safe place for Jews to spend any time. Dieter Koch travelled to France through Berlin only a week ago, and when we met in the Hershey, he told me that the place was crawling with police and soldiers, and there was no longer any restraint or recrimination among them for open violence to Jews in public places. He’d seen one or two very nasty incidents which he was loathe to describe, but I gathered they involved beatings and even one shooting of Jews in the station.

Although it was still only becoming light when we pulled into Anhalter, Anna woke fully and was keen to meet ‘Uncle Olek’.

“I’m hungry. When are we having breakfast, mama?” she whined.

“You should have eaten your dinner. Now go and visit the cloakroom, before we meet Uncle Olek, and take my hairbrush. You look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards! He will be waiting for us and he doesn’t want to see his favourite girl in such a state.”

“Will Anita be with him?”

“No my dear, she’s with her mother, and we’re going to see her when we get home.”

Anna and Anita were friends, though there was a year between them. Anna thought Anita rather babyish and not at all interested in fashion or boys, but faced with adult company, Anna always looked for another child to play with. It’s a shame that her brothers are much older than her and less engaged than one would like. Anna is quite an introverted child, and prone to moodiness. It must be a stage she’s going through. Perhaps she’s about to begin her periods, but she isn’t developing anything of chest, and she still has such childish features. I have, of course, given her the facts of life, and I don’t think she was particularly concerned about the possibility that she would have women’s problems, but I do wonder sometimes how much notice girls take of this information until it actually affects them. I assume it is the same for boys. I left it to Otto to talk to Tomasz and Max, but of course I never heard how that went. Neither has had a girlfriend to my knowledge, but of course it isn’t possible to keep watch over their activities in London, and it wouldn’t be my place to do so anyway. I did watch Tom closely in Paris to see if he exhibited any of Otto’s traits, or, God forbid, Lolek’s fascination with the opposite sex, but he seemed quite oblivious to the young Parisian girls.