Lilly's Album

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Chapter 2: Lilly's birth

Lilly was born a minute after midnight on the 25th December 1915, just as the nearby church bells rang heralding the birth of Jesus. She came into the world like him, as a Jew.

Lilly’s family lived in the Polish town of Wloszczowa, southeast of the capital city of Warsaw. They lived in Kilinskiego street number 13. A small white two-story row house, where from the front gate of the house, a narrow paved path led to the main entrance door. In the rear there was an unkempt garden with wooden fences that separated it from the neighbors on both sides.

When Ida’s labor began and the contractions became stronger, Jadwiga, the Polish midwife, was called to help prepare for the imminent birth. Several days earlier, Dr. Herman Mirabel, a close family member from Lodz, was summoned to deliver the baby. Wolf, Ida’s husband, had insisted that he will be present at the birth. Although Dr. Herman was a dentist, Wolf respected the vast knowledge he had of medicine, since he had studied medicine for several years before specializing in dentistry, and his presence had a calming effect on Wolf.

Ida was no longer a youngster; she was nearly thirty years old and she had given birth to her first-born son Davidek nearly three years ago. Little Davidek was now hiding beside the fireplace on the ground floor, as his uncle Stanislaw was trying to distract him from what was happening on the top floor by playing hide-and-seek with him. Dr. Herman had also overseen the first birth, even though it had taken place in the hospital in Warsaw.

Despite his heavy weight, Wolf displayed an incredible agility running up and down the narrow stairs every few minutes. When he reached the top floor, he stood by the closed door and listened to what was happening. He then ran down to give his brother-in-law Stanislaw a progress report. Just when the church bells began to ring and the Christian world was informed about the birth of Jesus the messiah, the voice of a crying newborn could be heard.

Wolf raced up the stairs. When he reached the bedroom door he stopped for a moment and as a fine Polish gentleman, he first cautiously knocked and asked if he were permitted to enter.

Little Davidek had to wait downstairs for another hour, before being permitted to see his new baby sister. When the door to Ida’s room was finally opened, Stanislaw and Davidek went upstairs to see baby Lilly, who was clean and wrapped in a towel, tucked in her mother’s arms with an appearance of calmness spread across her beautiful little face.

Jadwiga rushed to place the dirty sheets and towels into a large sack. Ida lay in bed covered by a white sheet to her waist, exhausted, but with a happy smile as she had always wanted a daughter, whom she could call Lilly.

As soon as Ida felt strong enough to walk around, she allowed visitors to come to the house. To accommodate everybody, Wolf had to extend the family dinner table and he placed it against the living room wall. He put out several bottles of Wisniak, vodka, and plates of neatly cut-up kielbasa1 pieces. Into floral ceramic bowls, he placed delicious smelling strudel pastries along with poppy-seed yeast cake that his Polish neighbor Zosia Szawlonska had prepared in advance.

The first to arrive was the battalion commander of the Austro-Hungarian army camped out in Rynek square in the center of the city. He was the commander of the occupying unit who had entered the city a few months earlier without facing any resistance and without a single shot being fired.

The townspeople looked at them with apathy and indifference, while the soldiers chuckled as they looked with curiosity at the Orthodox Jews, wearing long black coats and fur hats, sporting long beards and side locks, on both sides of their faces, that blew in the winter wind. The language they spoke sounded like German, but they could not understand it at all.

Wolf approached the officer, shook his hand as he bowed and said, “Welcome to my home, Herr Kommandant Schoenfeld. What an honor this is.”

The officer stomped with his shiny black leather boots, approached Wolf and patted him on his shoulder and replied, “I have come to bestow my blessings upon you on this happy occasion. I thank you for inviting me.”

Wolf accompanied the officer to the table, introduced him to the Ida and the baby and poured two glasses of vodka.

“To Lilly,” Officer Schoenfeld bellowed. “May she merit a long and happy life.” With that, they raised their glasses and poured the contents down their throats.

Wolf had known Officer Schoenfeld, who was a bridge enthusiast, ever since he occupied the town of Wloszczowa and settled there. When he inquired among the residents of the town who played bridge, Wolf, an avid player, made himself known. Every Wednesday evening promptly at six o’clock, Wolf would arrive, on his motorcycle, at the estate of Count Jan Sosnowski. Wolf was the Count’s accountant and financial advisor. On his way he would pass by the church and pick up the town’s priest, Father Dabrowski, who was an astute and sharp bridge player and who admired Wolf greatly.

Although Wolf was a Jew, he did not feel much sympathy for religion, any religion. He had never been inside a synagogue, did not understand the Yiddish language, and rarely had contact with Orthodox Jews. He was not interested in politics and adopted the popular Polish customs. He would introduce himself as a Pole of Jewish origin. However, he never denied his origin or tried however to hide it in any way.

When the private driver of Count Sosnowski arrived at the house and walked up the stairs alone, Wolf sensed that the Count would not be attending the celebration. Indeed, the Count did not come, but he sent a carved box of painted wood that had a thin silver chain with a clasp in the shape of a heart in it. It neatly fit around the tiny arm of baby Lilly.

Wolf excitedly thanked the driver and handed him a glass of fine vodka with some pieces of kielbasa. There was great mutual respect between the Count and Wolf, a kind of repressed friendship, not the intimate friendship that existed between him and Father Dabrowski.

Then Aunt Eugenia, Ida’s sister, arrived with her husband Stanislaw. Ida’s fifteen-year-old sister, Emma, arrived with her unmarried sister Roza, with whom she lived. Emma was a voracious reader, a bookworm, and an excellent student, but stubborn and rebellious. When the secular Jewish youth movement was established, she joined without consulting anybody in the family. After several weeks she moved on to a more advanced youth movement, known as Hachalutz, which combined advanced agricultural studies with sports training.

Then Dr. Herman’s wife, Aunt Bertha, with her two children Mietek and Irka, arrived, having traveled all the way from Lodz.

Father Dabrowski arrived to convey his good wishes, but stayed for only a few minutes. Although nearly everybody knew of him and about his friendship with Wolf, he did not stay for long, so as not to embarrass the guests with his presence.

As the first guests began to leave, Ida’s sister Cesia and brother Muniek arrived. At the same time, their good neighbor Zosia, who was highly pregnant, also arrived. She had been very helpful around the house making sure that Ida had everything she needed.

Everyone wanted to hold baby Lilly who was sleeping in her mother’s arms and was oblivious to what was taking place around her.

Dr. Herman offered himself as a waiter. He served everyone with steaming hot tea from the very impressive samovar that Wolf had received from his older brother, when he had visited him in Moscow a few years earlier.

“Is the water hot enough?” Ida asked. Hermann looked at her, smiled and said, “Do you not trust me, dear?”

Ida was concerned because a cholera epidemic was raging in town and had claimed many casualties.

Aunt Eugenia was not at all pleased with the presence of the Austrian officer, and showed great displeasure when he approached her and kissed her hand. He looked at her and spoke in German, but she pretended that she did not understand what he said.

Eugenia moved toward Ida, took Lilly from her hands, and said, “Now you have to play something for us.” Ida blushed and tried to get away, but all the guests began to clap, so she had no choice. She took her twelve-string double guitar, sat on a slightly higher chair and began to strum. Her slender fingers began moving quickly and the pleasant sounds of a flamenco rhythm that she had learned from a Gypsy street musician, began to emerge. She had brought the Gypsy home and paid him with hot meals so that he would practice her favorite flamenco melodies with her.

The Austrian officer, who was quite drunk, tried his hand at dancing, while the guests encouraged him with rhythmic applause. Wolf stood behind him with outstretched hands ready to support him in case he stumbled. Suddenly Wolf found himself lying on his back on the floor, while the officer was still dancing and stamping the soles of his boots on the thick carpet that covered the wooden floor.

Ida stopped her playing. Stanislaw and Dr. Hermann dragged Wolf into the bedroom and laid him down and undid his bow tie and belt. Wolf, who suffered from high blood pressure, was periodically in need of leeches to be placed on him in order to suck out his blood to lower his blood pressure.

From the glass jars that stood in the corner of his desk, they removed the hungry leeches and placed them around his neck and arm.

The bewildered guests began to disperse and leave. Thus, on a discordant note, the birthday celebration in honor of Lilly abruptly ended.

A few days later Wolf recovered.

Dressed as usual in his elegant suit, sporting a black bow tie, a walking stick in one hand and a brown leather briefcase in the other, he went to his meetings. Wolf, who had studied law had never practiced as such. While living in Warsaw he applied to, and was hired by, the Ministry of Finance. He specialized in the monitoring of tax payments, and was appointed regional supervisor of the Radom-Kielce district. Since Wloszczowa was only fifty kilometers from Kielce, and that was where Ida’s sister Eugenia and her husband Stanislaw Szajkowski and unmarried sister Roza lived, he decided to settle in Wloszczowa. He rented a small house and moved all his belongings from Warsaw.

Wolf’s brother-in-law, Stanislaw, was employed by the local authorities as a forester where he worked for several years. He was in charge of the logging and the controlled thinning of the surrounding forests.

He then got a job managing a large saw mill belonging to one of the wealthiest people of Wloszczowa, Rabbi Moses Eisenkott, a strictly observant Jew. Since the local farmers would harass his workers, Rabbi Eisenkott gave Stanislaw the responsibility of dealing with the farmers. Stanislaw was well built, good looking, tall, bright eyed and had straight spiky hair like a hedgehog. He had studied in Polish schools and spoke fluent Polish. However, when it came to speaking to the Polish peasants, he spoke in their language and spiced up his words and threats with every vulgar word imaginable. That was the only language they understood.

Many a time even on very cold days, he would remove his shirt, grab a long ax and chop a tree down singlehanded, all to impress and to scare those who intended to harass the employees of Rabbi Eisenkott.

The murder of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, by a Serbian student, did not shock the Polish press. The incident appeared in a small article and did not arouse much interest. Nobody thought that a local incident that had taken place in Sarajevo would affect the whole of Europe and be the catalyst for the start of the First World War.

When the Austro-Hungarian army invaded Warsaw in early August 1914 and defeated the Russians, the sworn enemy of the Poles, in the eyes of many they were their allies and saviors. When they entered the city of Wloszczowa there was no great resentment against the conquering army. To the contrary, the Jews, who had recently suffered from repeated attacks at the hands of the local farmers, hoped that from now on they would be protected by the occupying battalion stationed in the city.

In March 1917, rumors circulated of unprecedented protests across the Polish-Russian border, as the Russian Czar Nicholas II, had abdicated and appointed a weak government. The Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, became more and more vocal, until the night of October 24th of that year the Communists overthrew the government and seized power.

On the night of July 16th 1918, the entire Romanov family, including Nicholas II, were executed in Moscow. The Russian bourgeoisie and nobility fled because of the anger of the masses. Among those who managed to escape to Poland with a large portion of their wealth, was a Jewish businessman named Moses Moses Wolowleski. He fled to Poland and reached Warsaw together with his five-year-old son, Adam.

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