Chapter 26: Like a Target for Humiliation
At the end of April 1940, the concentration camp in Auschwitz, near Krakow, was built. Rumor had it that the Germans abducted Christians and Jews alike for the construction of the camp.
On the tenth of June, it was announced that Italy had entered the war on the side of Germany. Four days later it was announced that Paris had fallen into German hands and within a week all of France was under German occupation.
The long-awaited letter from Adam finally arrived. Lilly did not believe her eyes. She ran up the stairs of the house and entered the apartment like a whirlwind, startling everyone.
“What happened?” they asked. Lilly waved the letter. “It’s a miracle,” she shouted. “We’ve received a letter from Adam. David and Adam are alive.”
She immediately sat down and read the letter aloud with everyone listening to her.
To my dear family,
I sincerely hope that you receive this letter. I have had no information from you other than the letter that I received from Lilly which was full of deletions which made it nearly impossible to understand. The rumors that I hear pain and sadden me very much. I have no words to describe the horror stories that I hear. At least I know that you are alive and are managing under those terrible conditions. That fills my heart with joy.
Although I have written to my parents and brother, I have not received an answer. I have no information about them. I am writing to you because I have received a letter from Lilly, which indicates that the postal system works at least in your area (for the time being).
David fled from Miedzyrzec when the Germans arrived. He came to live with me for several days and then left. I don’t know if he was caught and sent to the gulag or to Siberia, or if he went to his uncle in Moscow. In any case he is alive. In Russia the Jews are not persecuted.
How are you getting along in these difficult times? Please write, I want to hear updates. Try to find out how my parents are.
I hope that this situation comes to an end quickly so that we can be together again.
I have promised Lilly that she will stand next to me at my wedding and that I will stand next to her at her wedding; and so it will be.
Lots of hugs to all,
“It’s a good thing that he is on the Russian side. It turns out that things are better by the Bolsheviks. Go figure,” Herman responded, sounding as if he was talking to himself.
Lilly read every word of the letter over and over again and then gave it to her mother to read.
“We must find a way to contact Moses in Warsaw. Perhaps through Zosia,” she said.
“We will not endanger Zosia with a trip to Warsaw. The roads are very dangerous,” Ida said emphatically. “Don’t even mention the thought in her presence, for she may immediately volunteer to go, and I don’t want her to go.”
At dawn on Monday morning, the first vendors arrived for the weekly market in Rynek Square. They began assembling their stands and organizing their wares. Shortly thereafter the first buyers began to arrive to buy the little produce that was available. Everything was in short supply and of very poor quality. There were some potatoes, some beets, various vegetables and grains of dry corn for milling. Every farmer tried to scrape some merchandise together in order to bring home a bit of money.
It was a sunny spring day and buyers, Christians and Jews, began arriving at the market. Herman also came to the market with basket in hand, accompanied by his son Mietek. In the market, Herman met Isaac, an acquaintance whom he had met on his frequent visits to Wloszczowa. They stopped for a moment to talk, when suddenly out of nowhere a German policeman appeared .He approached a stall where a bearded Jew was selling his wares and began screaming at him in German. The man, who did not understand German, did not respond and did not move, just stood frozen in his place. The people all around began to disperse, when the German screamed, ”Halt,” stop. Nobody moved.
The policeman went into a frenzy, and walked over to the Jewish man, grabbed him by his beard and began dragging him along the pavement. The old man, who was in obvious pain, trailed behind him like a goat being led to the slaughter. When they reached the end of the row of stalls, in front of all the onlookers who were staring with wide open eyes, he took out his gun and in cold blood shot the old man between his eyes. The lifeless body dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes. The policeman turned around to the people and laughingly asked ”Nechste,” who is next, and walked away without even looking back.
The vendors, along with the customers, immediately scattered in all directions. Two bearded vendors, who probably knew the dead man, loaded the corpse onto their mule-drawn cart and took him away. Within a half an hour, silence reigned in the market and only the pool of blood where the man was shot remained as testimony as to what had happened.
Herman and Mietek returned home in shock. They did not want to worry the women in the house, so they did not go into details about the incident, and said only that a vendor was shot when a gun accidentally discharged.
The next day, the entire town was talking about the policeman Julek Erdman and the terrible act he had committed. Christians, even those who hated their Jewish neighbors, expressed shock about the incident.
After the members of the family became aware of what had really happened, Herman addressed them.
“We were born into a despised and disunited nation, we were born into a nation that hates itself more than others hate it, and we were born into a nation where the facial features of all are identical in the eyes of the Germans, rich, poor, beautiful and ugly, one face for everyone. Nobody will be spared. We will all die an excruciatingly painful death by the hands of this ruthless gang that is sending us before hungry bloodthirsty wolves. Germany of today is not the Germany of the last war. Germany of today wants to destroy and eliminate all traces of the Jewish people and eradicate it from the world. This is the revenge of the barbarians on a civilized people who did nothing at all to harm them.”
When Herman finished speaking, everybody sat open-mouthed as no one had ever heard him speak so bluntly.
Izio was very comfortable at the home of his favorite dentist Dr, Alexander. He was given a room just for himself. Pilka had found a new friend. Whenever Izio would enter the living room she would jump on him and begin licking him. Dr. Alexander loved Izio(whom he of course called Mietek) and especially loved the fact that Izio would willingly accompany him every Sunday to the nearby church. For Izio it was a great opportunity to meet and greet Stanislaw.
Dr. Alexander taught Izio the work of a dental technician. Although Izio had the professional background, he showed a desire to learn and improve. In the evening, the doctor would sit near the fireplace and listen to Radio Berlin, while Izio would read books that he found in the doctor’s library. Sometimes they would play chess together.
Izio tried his utmost to avoid answering political questions that arose during their conversations. More than once the doctor asked him if he did not want to visit his family in Maluszyn. Izio had a gut feeling that Dr. Alexander knew about his Jewish origins but remained silent.
One day, at the end of September 1940, as Izio left the doctor’s house , he decided to become adventurous and go see the sights and events of the city. He felt so much more self-confident now that he had proper papers, an address and a business card from a German-Polish doctor that he dared to wander a bit further out than he usually went.
As he walked down the street, he noticed a group of young men following him, but keeping their distance. When he stopped, to supposedly tighten his shoe laces, they also stopped. He accelerated his pace and had entered a narrow alley when he suddenly noticed that the end of the alley was blocked by the ghetto wall.
When he turned to retrace his steps, the group of five thugs stopped in front of him, blocking his way so that he had nowhere to run.“’Look, look who’s here?” a familiar voice said. He raised his head and saw none other than Lolek Bitoft standing in front of him. “Lolek,” he cried out happily as he moved closer to embrace him. Lolek pushed him off and exclaimed, ”Parszywy Zydek, lousy Jew, impersonating a Christian, eh?”
Izio was shocked. He looked straight into Lolek’s eyes, but they were not the eyes of the Lolek whom he knew from Wloszczowa. They were the eyes of the Satan, cold and full of hatred.
“How is your prostitute sister?” he asked. He continued with his tongue-lashing and said, “Did she find a nice Jewish boy to screw her?” Izio realized that was in serious trouble. “Lolek is seeking revenge,” he thought to himself.
Since he really had no response, and did not dare respond to the group of thugs standing in front of him, he turned to Lolek and spoke to him in a pleading voice. “Lolek,” he said, “Is it my fault what Lilly has done to you? Have you no mercy on me? Were you not treated nicely in our house?” He tried to soften the heart of stone that Lolek was displaying.
“Let’s get rid of him” one of the thugs who was holding a short iron bar in his hand said.
“No, let him buy his way to freedom for money,” Lolek suggested.
For a moment Izio believed that Lolek had cracked and was going to save him from his blood-thirsty friends, so he turned to him and said, “Whatever you want, just tell me.”
“Tomorrow, at this place and at this time, you are to bring us five thousand zlotys,” Lolek said.
“I don’t have that kind of money. Where will I get it from?” a startled Izio replied.
Instead of responding, one of the thugs approached him and punched him in his lower abdomen causing him to double over. While reeling in pain, the thug then kicked him in the head knocking him to the ground. He lay there sprawled out on the ground unable to move.
“Tomorrow, same place and same time, you be there with the money. We know where you live, watch out,” one of them shouted.
Izio remained on the ground until the thugs had disappeared. He finally stood up, in total agony, bleeding from his head.
When he got home, the doctor was busy in his clinic. Izio quickly changed his dirty shirt that was soaked with blood and washed his forehead. When the doctor noticed the wound, he rushed to disinfect and bandage it. He was satisfied with the excuse that Izio gave him that he had tripped on the street and fallen on his forehead.
Izio decided to tell Stanislaw what had happened to him. He waited until the afternoon when Stanislaw returned home from work and went to his house. He stood in hiding at the end of the street, because he was afraid of being seen and thus betraying his uncle.
As soon as Stanislaw entered his apartment, Izio went into the building and knocked on the door. Stanislaw was surprised to see him. When Izio told him all about his meeting with Lolek, Stanislaw was shocked and turned pale.
“Lolek did that to you? Are you sure about what you are telling me?”
He was so astounded by what he heard that he doubted what Izio was telling him.
Izio had one thousand zlotys and Stanislaw gave him another two thousand zlotys which he had.
“I hope he will be satisfied with this and leave me alone,” Stanislaw said to him.
“My dear Izio,” Stanislaw continued. “I think that you should stop coming here. That is, until the danger passes. There is the possibility that he will follow you, discover us and that will be the end of us.”
Izio agreed. He embraced Eugenia and Stanislaw and said good-bye.
Izio was so tense, that all of the next day he was unable to assemble even one denture. Everything fell apart and broke in his hands.
When the time came, he left the doctor’s office and made his way to meet Lolek. He went in circles and took the long route to the appointed meeting place, as he wanted to make sure that nobody was following him.
When he entered the dead-end alley, the five thugs were standing there, with Lolek among them.
“What have you brought, Jew boy?” one of them called out to him.
He approached Lolek and handed him the wad of bills that he had and said, “This is what I was able to bring. I have no more.”
“How much did you bring?” Lolek asked without even counting.
“Three thousand” he answered.
“It’s not enough, you swine. Don’t you see that there are five of us,” he said.
Izio began to cry and said, “I have no more and no place to turn to.”
“I am giving you one week to arrange for the additional two thousand zlotys. If you do not come, we will come after you, but this time with a Gestapo officer who will be more than glad to meet you,” Lolek responded.
One of the thugs approached Izio and slapped him in the face.
“Enough now, leave him alone,” Lolek said.
As the thugs began leaving, Lolek turned around, looked Izio in the eye and said, “It’s nothing personal.”
Izio quickly left and took a different route home, constantly making sure that he was not being followed. He also wanted to distance Stanislaw and Eugenia from any danger.
Izio knew that the doctor kept a gun in his bedside cabinet, along with a cartridge full of bullets. He decided to flee into the forest and join the Armia krajowa (AK). He knew that they did not accept Jews into their ranks, but with his new identity, no one would suspect that he was Jewish. He wanted to save Stanislaw from the hands of the ungrateful villain Lolek, and the best way to do that was to escape to the forest.
Now that he had a one-week reprieve, he was determined to utilize the time to plan his escape. However, first he needed money, both for himself and to pay back Stanislaw. He decided to find his way to Moses and seek his help.
Izio asked the doctor to give him a free morning and the doctor obliged. He took the tram to Krasinski Park where he got off and began walking along the ghetto walls until he found a breach in the wall near the Great Synagogue on Tlomcki Street. He entered the ghetto, and went along Leszno Street which ran parallel to Ogrodowa Street. He could not help noticing the heaps of trash piled up on both sides of the road as well as the neglected houses. When he entered Ogrodowa Street, he was amazed to see the piles of dirt and litter that had accumulated there since his last visit.
He ran up the stairs quickly, knocked on the door with three rapid knocks and whispered, “It’s Izio.”
He could hear footsteps approaching and then the door opened.“Come in quickly.” It was Jerzy rushing him in and slamming the door behind him. Moses and Cesia jumped on him, hugged him and asked, “Do you have any news?” In their great despair, the slightest bit of news was important to them.
He told them all about his tragic meeting with Lolek, about the beating he had received and the money they were extorting from him. Moses turned red with anger.
“The Poles are a two-faced people. They are full of flattery and self-contempt when they need money or a favor from you, but are full of hatred and lack of emotion when they do not need you anymore,” he said and symbolically spat on the carpet.
Cesia tried to calm him down. “They are not all like that. Don’t get so upset, it will cost you your health. They are not worth your getting sick over,” she said.
She put her hand on his shoulder and clung to him. Moses was a fighter by nature; he had experienced many trials and tribulations in his life and always emerged victoriously. “The last battle of my life,” was how he described the current situation. He felt that he had no more strength to fight.
From a hiding place in the apartment, he brought out a wad of bills, all rolled up.
“Return to Stanislaw the money you owe him and give the scoundrel the money he is asking for. If you can rescue yourself with money, then by all means, do so.”
He told Izio of his plan to escape from the ghetto through the window. He confided in him that he had found a Christian who was willing to help for a substantial amount of money. He was just waiting for the Christian to give him the green light.
“Very soon they will be hermetically sealing the ghetto, with nobody entering or leaving. I must escape before that happens,” he said.
Before leaving, Izio embraced the members of his family.
“I have no words that can thank you enough. Hopefully we will meet again after the war in good health. This situation will not last forever; the end will come soon.”
While sitting in the tram on his way home to the doctor’s house, he overheard a conversation between two women who were sitting directly behind him.
“As of today it is forbidden for Jews to travel on trains and trams,” one said to the other. “The Germans are doing all the work for us. Hopefully with their help we will be able to rid our country of those lepers and blood suckers,” her friend replied.
Izio felt like turning around and punching both of them in the face, but he contained himself and just sat quietly with his head bent and his fists clenched in anger. At his stop, he alighted from the tram and went home.
On the fateful day, Izio took the two thousand zlotys, hid them in his socks and went to the designated meeting place. Once again he went in a roundabout way, in all different directions, while stopping to hide inside buildings, just to make sure that nobody was following him.
When he arrived at the meeting place, Lolek was waiting for him with two other thugs.
“Did you bring the money?” Lolek asked in a calm voice.
For a moment it seemed as if Lolek regretted what had happened, but it was an illusion. As Izio handed him the money that he took out from his socks, Lolek spat at him and said, “Is this the money your sister earned from her prostitution?”
Izio did not answer.
Just then one of the thugs came up to him from behind and struck him in his back with an iron rod. Izio collapsed and fainted from the pain. While he lay there motionless, the thug kicked him several times in the ribs. Lolek stopped him and said, “Don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
When he began getting back to himself he could see, in his blurred vision, Lolek bending over him.
“In a week at the same place and at the same time, you are to bring an additional two thousand zlotys. Do you understand?” Lolek said to him.
Izio did not respond. He just lay there for several hours until he was able to get up.
When he returned home, bruised and sore, he knew that in the upcoming days a new chapter in his life was about to begin.