From Girl, by Alona Frankel

Mapa Publishing 2005

 

Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

 

 

I first became acquainted with my two little gray mice – Misya and Tisya – in our hiding place at the Yuzik's house on Panienska Street, in the room disguised as a carpentry shop.

Misya and Tisya lived in an old, black cast iron stove. The stove was round and had a small door that closed with a hook. The door might have been transparent. Its legs were curved like a lion's or a tiger's, or maybe a small dragon's.

The stove wasn't in use.

Once, in the past, before I was driven out of the village of Marczinkovitza, they used to heat the house by burning books in that stove. The books were taken from the large library that had belonged to the man who owned the apartment before the war – the Jewish gynecologist. A few books from that library survived. They're in my house. The doctor himself, his mother, wife, two daughters and baby son were murdered by the Germans. That was at the beginning of the war.

Living in the apartment now were Mrs. Rozalia Yuzkova, Mr. Yozef Yuzek and their son Idvard, Edjo, who was my age. Their daughter, Anya, was already dead.

They agreed to hide my father and mother, and later, against their will, me too. Their daughter Anya died of open tuberculosis in my mother's arms when she was sixteen and my mother must have caught it from her. When the Red Army led by Stalin liberated us and saved our lives, my mother was admitted to a tuberculosis hospital in Lvov and almost died because her left lung, or maybe it was the right one, had a damp hole in it the size of a large plum. Professor Ordung saved her life. The hole had been gnawed by tuberculosis bacteria, Koch bacteria.

I was the first to hear the rustling of my little gray mice.

I still didn't know they were mice.

I still didn't know what color they were.

They still didn't have names.

And they still weren't mine.

I don't know whether I first heard the rustling during the day or at night. Most of the time, both day and night, my mother, my father and I, and our millions of head lice and clothes lice, lay on the makeshift bed in the right-hand corner of the room among the blankets and pillows and the torn, tattered, threadbare rags.

We had to be very quiet in that hiding place.

We couldn't walk.

We couldn't talk.

We couldn't laugh.

And I didn't cry.

No one, not a single living soul, could know that we were there. They would report us to the Gestapo and that would be the end of us, and maybe of the Yozek family too, Rozalia, Yozef and little Edjo. The Germans also killed the people who hid Jews.

We hid in that little room disguised as the carpentry shop where Mr. Yozef Yuzek, carpenter and alcoholic, supposedly worked when he came home from his job at the factory.

Since there was no vodka, Yozef drank wood alcohol, suffered from delirium tremens and had hallucinations filled with hideous white creatures.

My mother was the only one who knew how to calm him down when those horrors attacked him. From inside the apartment, we'd hear screams, curses, the sound of objects smashing and shattering. Rozalia Yuzkova would burst into our hiding place, disheveled, pitiful, weeping and agitated. She'd wring her hands and beg my mother – Pani Goldmanova, Pani Goldmanova, please, I beg you. Yozef is having an attack. He'll kill himself, he'll kill all of us. Come, please, come right away. You're the only one who knows how to cure him, to "cool him off," to restrain him, to soothe him.

And my mother would go.

After a while, the voices would die down and there would be silence. My mother would come back to our bed in the corner, her clothes and hair reeking of mechorka, vomit, sour sweat and vile alcohol.

Yozef Yuzek was a good man.

After all, he had agreed to hide my mother and father before the ghetto was liquidated. Without the daughter, of course. I could see why. He didn't know me. He'd worked in my father's storehouses in Bochnia before the war. And he hid us for money, of course. He didn't know we had a lot less money than he thought, but after the war, after we survived, my father took care of the Yuzek family. Even after we moved to Palestine, we sent them money. Even during the very hard times in a new and violent country.

Mr. Yuzek loved and respected my father. Like us, he'd fled to the east when the Germans took over. His wife, Rozalia, was Ukrainian and had relatives in Lvov. He found work again in Lvov, in the slaughterhouse and tanning factory where my father was chief accountant. That was when the Russians still had control of Lvov following the Rippentrop-Molotov pact. Yozef Yuzek and my father continued working there even under German occupation, after the Barbarossa Operation, when the Germans attacked Russia and pushed the Red Army further and further back, winning victory after victory, until Stalingrad.

 

My father's manager during the German occupation was a good German. He even let my father bring me and my mother to live in a tiny alcove next to the slaughterhouse. It was a dream, a paradise compared to where we lived in the ghetto. And food was plentiful too – the intestines and blood of the animals. Herr Knaup – that was the name of the good German manager who helped us save our lives by allowing my father to live in that alcove next to the slaughterhouse.

My father helped save many Jews from hunger by hiding intestines and keeping pails of blood from the slaughterhouse for them. They drank the blood on the spot. The intestines they wrapped around their bodies and smuggled into the ghetto in the hope that the Germans wouldn't catch them. They were the Jewish workers who left the ghetto in the morning to work in the slaughterhouse and tanning factory and returned to the ghetto at night, bone-weary and crushed, but alive.

One of the Jews who came from the ghetto every day in well-guarded groups to work in the slaughterhouse snuck into our alcove and begged my mother, even kissed her hands, to keep a plain, not very large wooden box for him "for only a few days". The box was locked with a key, and it had a flower carved on its cover.

That was very dangerous. My mother didn't like it. But even so, she did what the man asked. "If I'm not back within a month," the man said, "the box and what's in it are yours, Mrs. Goldman," he said as he handed it to her.

That's what my mother told me.

It was already evening. A key hung on a thin string around his neck. He took it off and opened the box.

Light streamed from it.

It was like "open sesame" from the Arabian Nights, my mother said. Jewels, precious stones, diamonds, pearls, gold chains, treasures.

To show how much he trusted my mother, the man left the box open and didn't relock it with the key.

The man came back two weeks later.

"Mrs. Goldman, in return for your generosity, please choose what you like best and take it," the man said. My mother, former member of the Shomer Hatzair youth movement and pure, modest salon communist that she was, picked out a small, unpretentious pin: a line of white-gold set with a small diamond.

Perhaps if she'd chosen something else, something more valuable, there might have been a little more money to keep me in the village among the living. But that's how it was.

The man swept the contents of the box into a bag that tied with a string, hung it around his neck, pushed it under his armpit and left.

He didn't go back to the ghetto. We'll never know if he survived or was killed. Maybe they picked him up in an aktion and sent him to the Yanovska camp, the way they once caught my father in the street and ran him to the camp where they tortured him on the parade grounds for two days, along with other prisoners, other Jews.

That's what my mother told me and told me and told me.

She told me how much she worried, and how she ran out to look for my father and how he finally came back half dead, filthy and crushed.

That's how it was.

But my father remained alive, and no one knows what became of that man with the box.

My father promised to pay Yozef Yuzak a fortune for hiding him and my mother. There was no fortune. A few weeks before the German invasion, when I was two years old, my father had invested all his money in purchasing a huge quantity – a trainload full – of building materials.

My father had a wholesale building materials business. That was in Bochnia.

The war started, the train loaded with building materials arrived and stopped on the private track leading to my father's storerooms. The old gypsy woman's prophecy had come true. My mother, my father and I, along with Dr. Fishler, a family friend who had performed an abortion on my mother a month earlier, escaped in a wagon harnessed to an enormous workhorse. My mother, as befit a salon communist intellectual, condemned uncontrolled reproduction, and like many of her milieu, preferred to have only one child.

She had been carrying twins.

And if they had been born?