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 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.

Chapter 22: Demise of the kitchen

That summer was baking hot. Anna was listless and pale, and hardly went out. The soup kitchen supplies became so limited we could only feed a small portion of those who came to the door, and by mid-day we were out of food, so Martyna closed earlier and earlier. Every day, there were scuffles in the queue, as starving street dwellers tried to ensure they would be one of the diminishing number of people to receive a bowl of soup. There was no bread at all any longer. When trouble broke out in the queue, the NKVD started beating, and then arresting the starving refugees in the line who were fighting to survive. The priest who oversaw our work, and was beholden to Boris to allow the continued kitchen service, told Martyna that she would have to close the doors if trouble continued. Boris and his colleagues had been to see him, apparently, looking for a larger share of the donations he was receiving, which themselves were dwindling. They threatened him with retribution against his church, and that they would have the soup kitchen closed immediately if he didn’t comply, but made it clear that it was the civil disobedience which would be cited as the reason. He had to agree to provide the NKVD with more food from his parishioners and he demanded that we bring our ‘customers’ into line if we wanted to keep our jobs. We tried to tell everyone to stop pushing, to wait their turn, and to leave peacefully once the day’s rations ran out, but of course they were desperate and each saw that meal as their priority, and not their good behaviour.

One day, we had no deliveries of food, and we had nothing in the kitchen left over. I knew that the NKVD men had intercepted the food cart on its way from the church and taken our supplies for themselves. It had happened before, and we could do nothing to complain. In the past, we’d managed to improvise with what we kept in the kitchen from the day before, but that was when we had generous tradespeople donating to the church. Now that had all dried up, and the priest had been selling off the church silver and buying food where he could to keep the kitchen going.

We had to go out and tell everyone in the queue that there would be nothing for them. Anka, Martyna and I went together, as the largest and strongest staff, and we dreaded doing so. There was a lot of groaning and muttering, but most people turned and began to shuffle off. A group of about ten teenagers down at the corner, who had been waiting for hours already, began to shout at the NKVD officers who were standing across the street, keeping watch. These were the same three officers who were posted outside every morning, swinging batons and berrating the starving refugees, or threatening them with beatings and arrest. The teenagers now shouting at them were part of a local gang who spent their evenings mugging people on their way home from work, and their nights breaking into local houses to steal what was saleable. They lived in bombed out buildings or under the old railway arches, and they we mostly boys, who would normally still be at school. The police were outnumbered, but were much stronger and armed with batons, while the gang of boys had only their home-made knives and the rocks they had found lying in the gutter. As they squared up to one another, and the three officers looked set to retreat, about twenty more NKVD arrived from the police station with rifles, and began to shoot above the crowd.

Then they charged at the youths with their long batons raised and began beating people indiscriminately. Women and children were knocked to the ground, their faces bleeding and clothes ripped. Older men from the queue entered the fray, and some tried to grab NKVD men and haul them off. Anyone who fought back was beaten and kicked until they were inert. The sergeant, one of Boris’ regular entourage, who knew us all well and was generally civil to the staff, was shouting to everyone to go home, and threatening to arrest anyone who didn’t do what they were told. The affray didn’t last long, since it was so one-sided, and after half an hour, the street was deserted, and anyone who had been injured in the fight had either been arrested or carried off by their friends. The Sergeant took the manager on one side and told her to close the place down, while his men came in behind the counter and confiscated all the pots and pans, taking them for the police station.

Anka and I stood helpless in the kitchen until everything was gone and the NKVD had left, then we hung up our aprons and walked home. Neither of us knew how we would continue to live without the free food we’d been depending on.

Chapter 16: Ania and Isidor

Ania and Isidor came to visit at Christmas, and brought a bottle of Krupnik which Isidor had been given by someone in the City Hall whom he kept in touch with. It was the first alcohol I’d tasted in four months, and it was remarkably invigorating. I understood after one small glass how people living on the street would prefer to spend their few Zlotys or barter their trinkets for spirits rather than food. Since November, we had been seeing dead bodies in the streets nearly every morning on our way to work, since people sleeping out were subjected to sub-zero temperatures and with no protection. It had snowed throughout early December and even during the day, temperatures rarely rose above zero. Nobody tried to remove the frozen corpses or to dig the hard ground to make graves, and we quickly became inured to the sight.

Anna spent almost all day with Wiktor, under the bed covers, and we only had fuel for occasional fires in the evening, so usually I went to bed after returning home. Tonight, we had a coal fire, because Isidor had paid Mrs Wisniewski for a bucket of coal when they arrived. She saw him coming and fleeced him for ten Zlotys, but Isidor didn’t argue.

“It’s lovely to see you, Ania. How have you been?” I thought Ania looked drawn and tired, but otherwise she hadn’t lost weight as much as most people. She and Isidor were probably still eating well enough.

“I’m fine. How about you? I thought Anna looked pale, and she’s as thin as a rake. Are you getting enough to eat?” Anna had gone down to Anka’s rooms to play with Wiktor, and to give us some privacy.

“She’s not very well, to be honest. She is sick and has diarrhoea every day. I bring her a bowl of whatever we make in the kitchen when I come home at night, but she sometimes find’s it hard to keep down. I think she has some dysentery but of course there’s no doctor near here. I’ve been thinking of selling my pearls to buy medicine, but I need to find someone with the right supplies and to get their price before I do that.”

“If we can help, we will. I’ll ask my neighbour, who knows people, to get in touch with you.” Ania was silent, and looked hard at Isidor, whom she clearly expected to say something. He coughed and looked steadily at me.

“Miriam, we wanted to talk to you about the future. We’ve decided to move on. We’re planning to try and get out of the country. I have heard news of the NKVD’s plans for a wholesale arrest of Jews who are politically connected, which would include those of us who have worked in Warsaw and so on. I’m certain to be on the list, because of my ties to the Mayor who was removed last month. They will  send those whom they pick up to Siberia, or they will execute them in the local prison yards.”

“So you’re planning to leave? Surely that’s enormously risky. What do you think, Ania?”

Isidor always made irrevocable decisions and Ania, though she was a strong enough person, never went against him. Once he had lost his job at City Hall, to a cousin of the head of the NKVD in Lwow, Isidor probably felt he had no choice.

“What have you been doing since you lost your job, Isidor?”

“I haven’t been out much. I’m convinced that the house is being watched, and it’s only a matter of time. Besides my own safety, I’m concerned that we will all run out of food if we stay here. They haven’t closed the gates to the west, so the refugees keep pouring into town, but the Russians are confiscating food to supply their soldiers, and we will all starve before the spring, unless we can get access to fresh farm produce. Frankly, I’m amazed your kitchen is still getting food.”

“It’s some well connected people in the Russian Orthodox church who supply us, but you’re right, the quality and quantity of food we’re getting is dropping, as quickly as the number of people queuing for it is increasing. Some of them are just coming into the soup kitchen to feel warm for a few minutes, and even when we run out for the day, they want us to keep the place open, rather than heading back out to the street. We have to threaten to have people thrown out after they’ve eaten.”

“Miriam, I have enough money to bring you with us, and Ania and I would like you and Anna to consider coming. It isn’t going to be easy, but we feel it will be safer than staying. Anna will have a much better chance of regaining her health in a warmer climate. We have every chance of making it to Palestine, and if not there, then perhaps Morocco or Tangiers. I hear that Jews are not mistreated in North Africa.”

“Thank you Isidor, but I am not sure Anna is fit to travel, and besides, we haven’t any travel permits. How will you make it across the border, even if you can get on a train? You’re somebody that the Bolsheviks would love to arrest, and I would imagine that bribes would have to be substantial.”

“I have made arrangements, and we have procured travel papers for the train.  I am someone who has simply done his job, and not a spy or an agent provocateur. I have been in touch with some of my colleagues in Chernovtsy, and they say that it is still possible to travel through Rumania without the careful checking that goes on here. That means finding a border crossing which is possible, and I’m sure we will make it. Trust me, Miriam, I would not put us all at risk.”

I hadn’t thought about leaving, as it would have been impossible for me to organise papers. It seemed to me that for Anna and me, we had no choice but to stay where we were not going to be picked up by the Nazis and sent to labour camps. To my mind, Lwow was safer than Hungary, even though The People’s Commissariat, which ran several prisons in the city was forever arresting Poles for political crimes against communism. They didn’t seem to be anti-Semitic, but Isidor certainly had a public face and his pre-war role in Polish politics made him an obvious target. It was true that they hadn’t been able to work, as I had, because everywhere that offered legitimate employment had been forced to check papers and record employees’ details, which the NKVD reviewed very regularly against whatever records they had of ‘people of interest’. Ania had taken Isidor’s name, rather than keeping Weiner, and so even if she worked and he hid out in their house, it would lead them to him. I sat staring into the fire, while Isidor poured another shot of the fire water. Ania reached out and took my hand.

“Please, Mimi, for Anna’s sake.”

“I have to say that I feel safer here, since we have a place to sleep, and I have work, and for myself and Anna, we aren’t likely to be of interest to the NKVD, in the same way as you are Isidor, and in my view we have to just wait it out. What do you think, Ania?”

“I understand your feelings, but I think Isidor is right. We can’t keep going on our savings. I’ve already sold most of my jewelry and the cash we brought with us is buying nothing any more. It’s different for you, because you have work, but since the problems at City Hall, Isidor can’t show his face, for fear of being picked up. We have to move on. I know it’s risky, and I fully understand your worries about little Anna. Perhaps, if we make it to Chernovtsy OK, and we can get word to you about the best way to come, you’ll join us?”

“Of course I’ll follow if it is safe, and if I can get papers. When are you planning to leave, Isidor?”

“It has to be tomorrow, Miriam. My contacts can only help us straight away, as so many good people are being replaced by NKVD.”

“Oh God. So soon! I won’t know what to do without you nearby, Ania. Paul and Ada are here, but you and I have always had each other to lean on.”

We both cried then, which is something I never did. I wondered if I’d ever see them again. If I’d been in any way a believer, I’d have prayed for them fervently, day and night. But who could believe in a God that watched Hitler and Stalin without stopping the destruction?

Chapter 14: Russian occupation

Mr Biderman, who now sold all the bread he could produce in a few minutes, told me that that the Germans had clashed with Russian soldiers in the hills, and that it was in fact the Russians who were now assaulting the city, using artillery they had confiscated from our own army. We were being bombed with our own bombs! The Polish General, Sikorski, was co-opting able-bodied men and teenage boys from the city to help build barricades, but according to the baker, he had expected the Germans to attack, and the Russians to help defend Lwow. If we couldn’t trust Stalin, and the Germans were being kept at bay from the west by all the forces we could muster, it seemed to me that Lwow would soon be overtaken by the Russian army from the east.

After two days of fierce fighting, when Nazi soldiers entered Lwow several times at different points, and were driven back by the defence forces, they unexpectedly fell back to Lublin.  It turned out that the Russian army had approached from the East, and had encircled the city and threatened an all-out attack. It was clear that this was a vastly larger force, by all accounts up to a million men, and the remaining Polish soldiers and ragbag of refugee volunteers had no hope of defending us.   General Sikorski surrendered straight away. The Russian Colonel marched his soldiers right through the centre of Lwow, in a peaceful show of strength, and all the tenants of the house watched from the front window on the stairs, unsure whether we had been liberated or defeated. For all the locals in the Jewish quarter, and we refugees, it was a relief to hear that the Nazis had left us to the Russians, but it wasn’t a cause for celebration, as our army was defeated and dejected. Crowds stood for many hours on the pavement below our lodgings, at the corner of our road, and watched the disarmed Polish soldiers marching out of the city, under Russian guard. There were injured men on stretchers and others limping with home-made crutches to support them, and there were shuffling, tired and hungry men who were heading out of the city to register with the Soviet administrators before being released to go home.  The Polish officers had hoped they would be allowed to leave, but there were apparently a lot of arrests by the NKVD, the Russian secret police, which quickly became our de facto government.

Though the city didn’t settle back into anything one could call normality, we did manage to sleep through that night, in the silence after the cease-fire, and the next day I decided I would have to look for work, as my small amount of money had almost run out. My only training was in secretarial work, which I had studied briefly before my marriage, twenty years ago. The problem was that unless I was prepared to offer my services to our Russian masters, I would not find any demand for administrative work. Their administration would of course all be in Russian, which I had only rudimentary conversational understanding of and I had no knowledge of Cyrillic, so no written Russian at all. Besides, how could I work for an enemy? Why would they employ me, instead of one of their own, or one of the Russian emigres living in Lwow? Most people were scavenging for their food, buying it with favours and bartering their small possessions, since Zlotys seemed to have little value. Our room was freezing at night, even though it was only early October, and we couldn’t afford fuel to burn. I had to come up with something else I could do, or we would starve.

Within days of the defeat, we found out that the Bolsheviks were not our saviours, but our lords and masters. Poles were set to work doing the most menial jobs for the NKVD. They would have gangs of starving men breaking rubble and clearing the streets, while the wives were doing their laundry and serving them at table. It seemed strange that since the revolution, the proletariat were not being treated as equals. It was in fact the Jews who were given better treatment than the Catholics, which was because there were so many Russian Jews in their ranks. At the same time, the Polish elite who had been running things in Lwow were replaced in their jobs by Ukrainians. Many were quickly arrested and loaded into trains to be sent to Siberia, and it became known that to be wealthy in Lwow was a dangerous thing. A lot of the senior Jewish leaders initially wanted to work with the Russians, and saw the incursion as a good thing, but quickly they realised that their enthusiasm wasn’t reciprocated. By then, a lot of Polish Catholics in the city begrudged the Jewish involvement with the Soviets and Jews were being ostracised and even attacked for being so supportive of the Russians. It didn’t make much sense to me, since Krakow had been a multi-denominational city in which the Jews and Catholics had managed to have a peaceful co-existence for centuries. Of course, there were Jewish districts and Catholic districts there, as there were here, but it had never been this divisive.  Isidor, a sophisticated politician, understood all the machinations, and worked hard to get himself in the centre of things.  He’s learned Russian, as a diplomat in Warsaw in the thirties, and no he saw himself regaining power.  We saw little of each other, because of the lack of transport in the city, but I did try once or twice to visit him at the City Hall in the hope that he could get me some office work there. Each time, he was unavailable, in meetings, and on my third visit, I was told that he was no longer working there. I meant to go and visit Ania, but it was such a long walk to her neighbourhood, and even if I made the journey, I couldn’t be sure that they would be at home.

It was at that time I began socialising with the lady who had rooms on the floor beneath mine, the one to whom Agata had referred. She was a lively, strong and energetic young woman named Anastasiya Dabrowski. She had fair hair and a rosy complexion, and looked more like a milk maid than a city dweller. Anka, as she liked to be called, was a Ukrainian Catholic immigrant who had settled in Lwow in the early thirties, and she had indeed been brought up on a farm, and was a Kutak, which she told me meant that her father had refused to pay his dues to Moscow after the revolution. Lenin had called the Kutaks “bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who fatten on famine”, which she recited to me with pride. Because the Bolsheviks had taken all the farms from the Kutaks for their collective farming programme, her family had been forced to leave their land and travel west in the twenties, and she’d met Mykola, her husband, in Kostopol, where he was a construction worker. I couldn’t see any sign of a man around the house, and I wondered at first whether they had split up.

Anka lived with her three year old boy, Wiktor, who was just learning his words, and had a cherubic grin. Anna took a great liking to the boy, who spent most of his time playing alone on the stairs, and she brought him into our room whenever she could and treated him like a doll, cuddling him and singing him her own nursery rhymes. Anka began asking us in to her rooms for tea, if she could get some, so that Wiktor would be under her eye, and because she had four chairs while we only had two. I dared not tell her what life we had left behind in Krakow, but I’m sure she could tell by our clothes, and Anna’s manners, that we are from very different circumstances. I have never been one to have airs and graces, especially when everyone is brought to the same situation, and though I had spent years relying completely on Celestyna’s wonderful cookery, this would not deter me from cooking and sharing our food with a neighbour, especially as Anka had a two-ring cooker.

“So, Anka, tell me about Mykola,” I asked innocently over tea. I didn’t really know how to open a conversation about her marriage, even though she was a down to earth and open person.

“Miriam, you won’t believe me, but he has the hairiest back I have ever seen on a man. He’s like a bear with clothing on! He’s taller than that doorway, and he often hits his head when he enters the room. He’s as strong as an ox and can eat like a horse. I think I must have married a farm animal!” She burst into a bellicose laugh, and I couldn’t help myself, but had to join her, even though such conversation would never have been had in Krakow. I’d never had a friend who was so coarse but at the same time so warm and friendly. We’d always been told to avoid loud and uneducated children when we were younger, and as an adult, I had really only ever mixed in ‘polite society’. Something had begun to change in me since I came to Lwow, which felt not at all bad, and now I wanted to spend more and more time with Anka because she gave me the hope and confidence I had been losing ever since I left France.

“And, if it’s not too rude a question, where is Mykola now?”

“Well, you see, Miriam, I’m not sure. He has been working for the railways for the last year, as a guard on the Warsaw Express, mainly. Anyway, two weeks ago, he left as usual, but he didn’t come back. I know he sometimes stays over in Warsaw with another guard who puts him up, but I’m worried that something has happened to him. I’ve been to the station to find out, but the station-master told me that the trains to Warsaw were suspended last week, and he had no information about Mykola. He said he would let me know if he heard anything.”

“So what are you living on, if he isn’t bringing home his wages?”

“Well, not much, Miriam. Wiktor is still breast feeding, though I wish he could be weaned, as his teeth are so sharp, and if I could only get more cow’s milk, and oats, I could get him onto solids full time. I have been working through our pitiful savings, but I’m getting to that point where I’ll have to go out to work. I was wondering, whether Anna would be able to help me with Wiktor if I got a job. They seem to get on so well.”

Even though it was now only three or four weeks since we’d left the comfort of the spa in Naleczow, we had suffered for the drop in our living standards. Anna and I had both lost weight, and being hungry had changed Anna’s fussy eating habits completely. She now ate anything that was put in front of her. I was tired and depressed by the dirt and destruction of everything around us, and because it was impossible to keep the place clean. Our clothes needed laundering, and we had only cold water to wash in. Walking to the nearest shop involved climbing over piles of rubble, and buying a loaf of bread might involve a scuffle with two or three other shoppers in which the strongest and most aggressive won. I had become quickly hardened to the beggars, and the poor old people I would normally have distributed alms to. Now it was a battle for survival.

“Yes, Anka, I think that would be an excellent idea, and it would give Anna something to do during the day, instead of having her hang around the back yard. I don’t want her out on the street. There are so many people living rough now, and she’d have her clothes stolen off her back in no time. “

Chapter 13: Finding our feet

The day passed quickly, in walking the streets, knocking on doors and asking about apartments. The lady in the queue had been right. There was nothing to be had, even at prices we couldn’t afford. Maryla had two rooms for herself and the two children, since Stephen, at fourteen, was old enough to be separated from his sister, Anita, who like Anna, shared her mother’s bed. Their rooms were in a huge old mansion block whose corridors smelt of cabbage and whose front door was always open, since nobody had keys except to their own rooms. We stopped off to see how they were coping, and Maryla had clearly been crying, as she had puffy red eyes.

“What’s upset you? Are the children OK? Did you not sleep last night?”

“Oh Miriam, I just want to go home. This is awful, and I don’t know if we can do this. Last night I lay awake, listening to people arguing and doors slamming, and then as I was falling asleep early this morning, someone above us ran a bath and started banging around. The walls are paper thin and the ceilings too.”

“Well, at least you have running water in your room, and I’m afraid to say that we no longer have the car since it was stolen in the night.”

“Oh God! That’s awful. What are we going to do? We can’t get out of Lwow when they open the roads unless we have a car.”

“I don’t think we’ll be going anywhere soon, car or no car. There is apparently news of the Russians advancing towards our troops, and nobody knows their intentions. Lots of towns have cheered as they arrived, and the Ukrainians and Belarusians are delighted that they are here. We need Stalin to defend the Jews too. Our soldiers are being moved west of the city, to defend us against the Germans, and I heard this morning that Krakow and Lublin have both fallen into Hitler’s hands. We were lucky to have left when we did, you know. So we need help here, which might come from France or Britain, but nobody knows if Russia is here to help or take over from our soldiers.”

“Miriam, you’re so much better at understanding these political machinations than I am. What about Olek. Do you think he’s safe in Danzig? Will he be able to find us here if we stay?”

“I don’t know, dear. I know that Danzig is no longer a free state and that Germany has taken over control, but you know how capable Olek is of manoeuvring. If anyone can look after himself, it is you husband. He will find a way to contact us, I am sure. We have left a trail of forwarding addresses, so don’t worry. I have more doubts about Otto’s safety, and his ability to find us.”

I left Anna with Anita for the afternoon and walked over to see Paul and Ada, who had managed to take a room in the house of Agata’s friend, and Paul was out already looking for work. Ada, who is a quiet and quite negative person, I think, was doing her washing and seemed to have settled in well. Paul, who has an engineering background, was thinking about helping with rebuilding homes, or at least surveying the damaged ones, and had apparently gone to City Hall to see if he could talk to the planning department about a job. Ada said she would prefer to stay at home, since her only skill was in secretarial work, and she couldn’t earn much. Isidor had managed to procure some petrol from his friends’ housekeeper, and had driven over to check on Paul first thing. He said he would be calling to Arkhypenka Street as well, but we must have missed him. Ada said that she thought he had some good contacts in the Mayor’s office and that he would be able to find out how and when we might leave Lwow.

On the way back I found a vegetable show with some beetroots for sale and bought some for borscht, and a street vendor who was selling scraps of a carcass he swore was beef, but could have been dog for all I could tell. With these and the remainder of the bread from the morning, we returned to Agata because she had a cooking ring, and made ourselves and her some supper. She seemed grateful of the company and the news of her friend.

“And how did you get on with Eva Wojcik? Did you meet her upstairs neighbour? She’s a lovely woman apparently. I can’t recall her name. And what did you make of Mrs Wisniewski ? Eva tells me she’s a tough one all right, but fair once she trusts you.”

“The less said, the better. I was hoping we’d be moving this evening into a more suitable accommodation, but it seems we are too late. Perhaps Isidor will be able to pull some strings for us in time, but for now, I think we must stay put. It’s not a place I want to be in cold weather, since there are draughts and damp, and there’s no running water in the room. I do so appreciate you letting me use your kitchen, Agata, and I will always be happy to prepared food for you if that’s OK with you.”

“Of course, my dear. Young Anna needs good hot meals. She’s a scrap of a child, and needs her nutrition.”

We left early in the evening. I didn’t want to be out with Anna after dark, and the evenings were closing in. There was a chill in the air when we arrived into Arkhypenka Street, and at the house I was forced to knock for Mrs Wisniewski and to buy a bucket of coal from her which she kept locked in a coal bunker in the back yard. She carefully scooped the lumps one by one into my bucket, and made sure that they filled it loosely and no more than to the level of the rim.

Once Anna and I had made a small fire in the grate, we did our best to settle down for the night. There were so many new sounds outside. There were distant explosions and some cries from the street, and there were mice somewhere in the room. Anna fell asleep as I sat over the embers, contemplating our future. It seemed bleak, and insecure, but at least we would be able to share our worries with Paul and Ania, and to make the best of minding Maryla and her children. Lwow wasn’t a foreign country, after all, though it was years since I’d been there. The army would protect us and perhaps the Russians would defeat the Nazis. I know that the Bolshevik reputation is atrocious, but perhaps it is true that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. For my own peace of mind, I decided to be positive, and to have no expectations.

I was woken early in the morning by the sound of air raid sirens, swiftly followed by explosions. We had nowhere to go for safety, no bomb shelter or cellar, so we had to take our chances. For two days, the city was bombarded from the surrounding hills, and we were unable to go out. We sat in our room, listening in terror as shells rained down and buildings collapsed. We shared what food our neighbours were able to offer us, and we stayed in bed to try and keep warm. Eva Wojcik told me that the air raid warden had called to her, as he knew she was alone, and told her that these were German shells falling on us, and that their forces had surrounded Lwow. The Polish soldiers and volunteers from the city were holding them back. It was a fierce battle, and news came on the third day of the germans retreating back towards Lublin. Then we heard cheering in the streets as reinforcements arrived from the east, where our troops had been told to leave the Russians to move forward. We thought it might be over, and I decided to slip out to look for food, leaving Anna in our room, with instructions to lock the door, and spent an hour scouring the shops, which were open for supplies. I wasn’t back more than twenty minutes before we were attacked again and the bombing recommenced. Time after time, the houses shook as the bombs struck, and between air raids, there were shells from the hilltops, which smashed into buildings, indiscriminately devastating homes and businesses, roads and churches. We had entered hell, and we had no way out. For five days I didn’t see Paul or Ania, and only once received word from Isidor, via a teenage messenger who was looking for payment in bread, that everyone was still safe.

The next morning, we found leaflets scattered on the street, which had been dropped from German warplanes, demanding our surrender. By now, we were confused about the siege and how it would progress. Nothing was clear.

Chapter 12: Arrival into Lwow (2)

Agata recommended a friend to me whom she knew was living in a rooming house nearby. Eva Wojcik had two rooms on the ground floor of a tall terraced tenement on Arkhypenka Street, which was just a few minutes’ walk, and Agata thought that the lady on the top floor had fled west only a couple of days ago, since Mrs Wojcik had told Agata that the lady’s husband had been reported killed on the Western Front and she couldn’t support herself alone. She had a sister in Lublin and had decided to take her chances with the German advance. We might have passed her on the road, though there had been very few people travelling against us today.

I left Anna with the suitcase in Agata’s tiny sitting room, where she was now alone with the old lady. Ania and Isidor had opted to drive on to their friends’ house on the far side of the city, because Isidor knew that the house would be vacant since the friends spent every summer at their villa, and Paul and Ada were walking to the address of another of Anaka’s contacts from the synagogue whom she thought would put them up in her own home, since they were relatives. I offered Paul the Duesenburg, which still had a little fuel, on condition that he would bring my trunk in the morning, but he refused, because he couldn’t be sure how safe the car would be overnight. It would be better, once I’d found somewhere to stay, if I took it in, and emptied the car of everything worth keeping. In the event, I wish he’d taken the car, and I was exhausted and would have preferred to leave everything till morning, but it was true that on our drive across the north side of the city, we’d seen cars supported on bricks, stripped of their wheels, with their windows smashed and people sleeping in them.

I promised Anna I would be back soon and asked Agata to let her curl up on the sofa under a blanket while I was out, since she was barely keeping her eyes open. I followed Agata’s directions to the house, which turned out to be pretty shabby but at least it was intact. Mrs Wojcik let me in, because the landlady was out. After introductions, she was happy to let me see the room, and felt that the landlady would be fine about it too. I trudged up four flights of stairs to look at a small room under the eves. It was almost empty, except for an old iron bed, covered in a none too clean mattress, a rickety table and two upright chairs. There was a bucket, a broom and a small cupboard with nothing inside, but there were no cooking facilities, and no running water. The small window was cracked, and there was no rug or carpet. Just the bare floorboards. I wondered when the old fireplace had last been used, as there was no sign of any fuel or ash. But it was clean enough, and didn’t smell of anything except dampness, which was evident in the corner where the roof met the wall, and a gutter was presumably broken. It would have to do for tonight, and then we could look in earnest in the morning for something more comfortable. Surely such a grand city had more genteel suburbs full of small apartments for rent, with furnishings and perhaps the services of a maid or housekeeper. It need be nothing grand or ostentatious, since we had little money to spare, but somewhere adequate. We would, hopefully, hear from Otto soon, and he could probably arrange for a local branch of the Bank of Poland to receive a transfer of funds which we could then live on until this war collapsed.

Eva Wojcik was a quiet and respectable single lady who had been living on the ground floor for many years, she said, and the landlady, Mrs Wisniewski, had rooms across the hall from her. She felt sure that Mrs Wisniewski would be happy to rent us the room, and that we should move in tonight and talk to her in the morning, because she would be late back from visiting a sick person in The Jewish Hospital.

I returned to collect Anna, and we drove over to Arkhypenka Street, rather than lugging our bags on foot, and bit by bit we unpacked the trunk and carried our belongings up the four flights to the small room. Anna, who is normally oblivious to her surroundings, was shocked when she first saw where we would be staying the night.

“I don’t want to sleep in there mamushu. Look, there’s a big stain on the bed, and it’s cold.”

“I know darling, I know. But it’s just for tonight. We’ll find a better place in the morning. Look, you can sleep in your clothes if you’re cold, and I’ll sleep beside you, so that you will be warm.”

By the time we had finished unpacking, and locked the car, the street was empty, and the moon was full above us. We closed the door and climbed up to our garret, and fell into the bed without a wash. We were both asleep immediately, but in the middle of the night I was woken by shouting from the street far below us and the sound of a window breaking. I would have crept to the window to investigate, but was so tired that I quickly fell back into a dreamless sleep.

It wasn’t until I went down to the yard with the bucket for water in the early morning that I saw the broken glass all over the pavement outside the house and realised that our car had been stolen. I began to fret about its value and how upset Otto would be, and then I decided to let it go. There was no fuel to be had on the open market, the car was a dinosaur anyway, and maybe it would provide shelter for someone living on the street. Otto could rant and rave about it if he ever came to find us.

We’d agreed to take breakfast with Agata, and to buy some bread and milk on our way at a bakery she had told us about. It was already eight o’clock by the time I had Anna dressed and washed in the cold water I had carried up the four flights, and we had met the landlady and paid her an exorbitant sum for the room. It was enough for a minimum of a week, which she recommended, and demanded.

“You won’t get anything better, Mrs Weiner. There’s nowhere to rent, for love nor money now. You know how many thousands of people we’ve had coming into Lwow in the last month? And besides, there’s plenty of landlords who won’t take Jews in, you know.”

“And why is that Mrs Wisniewski?”

“Well now, I wouldn’t care to speculate, but if you ask me, its because Jews is being arrested and taken away all over the country. What’s going to happen if we get over-run by the Hun and that terrible Hitler? I ask you. Now I’m not prejudiced you know. Some of my best friends is Jewish. I was only visiting Elijah Abramovski last night, who is a lovely Jewish gentleman who was lodging with me for years, and now he’s not well and he’s in the Jewish Hospital. The place was heaving, mind. Couldn’t swing a cat in there, let alone take any more sick people.”

“OK, well we must go now or we’ll be late. We will see what is available and come back later for our belongings, if we can get a taxi. Did you hear our car being stolen last night, from right under your window?”

“I don’t know anything about a car being stolen. This has always been a good neighbourhood you know. I sleep like a log mind, but I do remember a big blue car parked outside when I got home last night. Was that yours?”

Mrs Wisniewski didn’t seem at all put out about the theft, and I decided then that her only interest would be in our money and not our welfare. Luckily, our room door had a key, and I had it in my pocket, though probably she had a duplicate and would be into the room as soon as we’d left to see what we had brought with us. I made a mental note to check our belongings when we returned.

The bakery was on the corner of Agata’s road, but there was a long queue already on the pavement and I sent Anna on to tell Ada’s aunt I would be a while. While I was waiting in the queue, I got talking to the lady in front of me, who was a local.

“Every day I get here earlier, and every day the queue is longer. I’ve been coming here for years and it’s never been like this. The Bidermans who run it are going to have to close down soon, they told me, because they can’t guarantee to get the flour every day, and without it, there’d be no baking. It’s strictly one loaf each now, if they have any, and I hope you’ve got plenty of cash, because it’s five Zlotys now. It was only 50 groszy a month ago. And just in case you’r wondering they won’t take those new Zlotych notes, you know. I don’t blame them. It’s like toy money.”

“We’ve only just arrived from Lublin yesterday, and we spent the night in a pretty terrible place. I’m wondering whether you might know where we could rent a comfortable apartment in this district, by any chance?”

The lady started to chuckle, and when she saw that I was not joking, she stopped.

“I’m sorry dear. I’m sure that there were plenty of nice places to rent a month ago. Sure, half the city was empty in July, when the rich left for their country summer houses, and all the men joined up, but that was then. Now, if you’ve a roof over your head, hold on to it and don’t let anyone in, because there’s an endless queue of people trying to come here. You must’ve seen them, if you came from Lublin yesterday. And they have to stay now because the army has blocked all the roads out. My next-door neighbours have taken two families into their house, as an act of charity, and since word got out, we have people banging on the doors all day long asking if they can come in. Yesterday, someone offered me their gold pocket watch for rent, and someone else pleaded to be my cleaner and housekeeper in exchange for a room.”

By then, we had reached the head of the queue, and the lady paid over her five Zlotys and took her loaf of brown bread, thanking the baker’s wife and asking after her children. As she turned to go, she smiled sympathetically at me.

“Well, good luck with the house hunting. Perhaps you’ll be lucky. I’m sure we’ll meet around if you’re still in Arkhypenka Street.”