My Mother's Secret(8)
Author:J. L. Witterick

    My brother seems to have found someone perfect for him as well. While Anelie only speaks if she has something important to say, Bryda is very talkative and can keep us all entertained with stories of their day in the market, something funny that Walter did, or the latest gossip in town. She’s more reliable than the newspaper, and her information is more accurate. She has quite the network of friends and contacts.

    Our family of three goes to six in one step but feels like it was always meant to be that way.

    My mother, for the first time, feels like her job is done.

    Maybe she was holding on just for that. We never knew how sick she was, though for months she knew about the cancer. I’ll always remember her final words: “Bronek, I wish your father could have seen how well you have done. He would have been so proud of you, as I am. A mother could not be luckier than to have both you and your brother for sons. I know that you’ll look after everyone. I’m sorry to be leaving you, but it’s my time.”

    In all of us, there is a child that exists while we have our parents.

    With my mother gone, I feel a sadness for the loss of the child within myself.

    Chapter 23

    None of us know about the storm that is coming.

    Only a year later, the world as we know it starts to change—gradually at first but then unbelievably so.

    I am glad that my mother did not have to see what is happening.

    The name Hitler is whispered among the Jews as Germany invades Poland on September 1, 1939. Equipped with guns, the Polish army is no match for the Germans, who come with tanks. Our country is easily defeated with just over a month of fighting.

    Hitler and Stalin make a pact to support each other, and Poland is divided between them. It’s a tense situation for everyone.

    In our town the Bug River is the dividing line, with Germans on one side and Russians on the other. We live on the Russian side and are thankful for that coincidence given stories we have heard of how the Nazis treat Jews.

    This reprieve, however, does not last.

    On a warm summer day in June 1941, the Germans break with the Russians and move to our side of town.

    I look up at the clear blue sky, painted with soft clouds that float along, puzzled at how such tranquillity could exist in the natural world on such a day.

    Chapter 24

    At first there are restrictions on our activities, and we are required to wear a star to be identified. If you are identified as a Jew and don’t wear the star visibly, you are shot on the spot and left on the side of the street.

    Soon Jewish stores have to put signs in their windows so people know not to shop there.

    Jews are also not allowed to work in certain industries and cannot shop in non-Jewish stores.

    I keep working at the farm but am not surprised when the owner calls me in one day and says that he can no longer keep me.

    He says that he has no choice, and I think he feels ashamed. Out of guilt or kindness, I guess it doesn’t really matter; he pays me for three more months.

    Being responsible for the family from a young age, I have always been careful to have money set aside. Knowing that our belongings could be confiscated, I don’t keep our money in the bank. I buy gold and bury manageable amounts in locations along the river. I do this late at night to make sure no one sees me. I have the locations committed to memory but make my family repeat over and over again where they are in case only one of us makes it. Having the gold helps us survive. Even gold from a Jew is welcomed in the black market for food and medicine.

    Gold, since the beginning of time, has worked best.

    From her contacts, Bryda tells us about the Zegota, an underground organization that provides false documents for Jews who can pass as Christians. The Zegota is funded by the Polish government in exile.

    The problem is that Walter, Bryda, and I have classic Jewish features and cannot possibly pass for Christians. Anelie and Dawid can be disguised this way.

    I try to persuade Dawid and Anelie to leave posing as a Christian couple, but they refuse, as I knew they would. “We stay together, Bronek. We’re family.” Dawid feels strongly about this.

    I look woefully at my brother with the blond hair that has thinned out considerably. Always youthful in appearance, he now looks ten years older from worry. I know that I too have aged beyond my twenty-five years.

    It is bad timing, but Anelie becomes pregnant in the midst of this.

    We name our daughter Biata, meaning “blessed,” and hope that her name will help to protect her.

    Chapter 25

    By September 1942, my gold is running low, and we are herded up and sent to live in a part of the city that has been sectioned off by barbed wire.

    We are allowed to bring one bag each. I tell everyone to bring the most practical clothes and shoes. No one will care how we look. “We will need warm clothes and good walking shoes,” I say.

    Worried that they will search our bags and take our money, I have Anelie sew a false lining in the coats to hide our cash. Also, Walter’s teddy bear has his stuffing replaced with zlotys.

    My precaution pays off when our bags are searched on arrival. The Germans take everything valuable. They are ruthless and even have a dentist on hand to extract teeth for the gold fillings. We hear people begging and crying to keep their remaining possessions. I know that it’s useless to plead with thugs, and that’s how I see them. I could fight the bully in the schoolyard, but this is beyond anything that I can fix.

    • • •

    MY FAMILY IS GIVEN one room in an old house with seven other families. There are two small beds for the five of us. We keep a small pot under the bed for Walter, who can’t wait for his turn to use the outhouse.

    It’s clear that the Germans want workers because they interview each of us, looking for skilled labor.

    I am hired for a big industrial company that needs labor for a munitions factory. With my background in construction and my handiness with tools, I pass their test and am given working papers. Dawid does not. They’re not interested in bookkeepers.

    Surprisingly, the management of the factory treats everyone quite well, in contrast to the German soldiers. The rations for lunch are reasonable and consist of real food, not like the diluted soup and stale bread that we receive in the ghetto. I have a big appetite but always save some part of every meal for my family.

    My papers keep us alive in other ways as well. They give me an opportunity to get to know the regular workers and gauge whom I can trust to trade with. When the supervisor is not looking, I pass the cash over and tuck the food coming back under my clothes.

    The ghetto is guarded, but sparsely, so I sneak out late at night by timing the rotation of the guards. There are areas where the ground is lower, and by lifting the barbed wire with a metal bar, I can slide under. It’s a good thing I know the route to the river by heart because I have to dig up what gold is left in the dark. This is my backup when all the cash is gone.

    Chapter 26

    All around us, people are thinner by the day. We see hopelessness in the faces of people we pass in the street and we try not to look at anyone because they are begging for help. Sanitation is poor, and with the overcrowding, disease is rampant. Rats are healthier than people in the ghetto.

    With the finish line being death, it is a race between disease and hunger for most people.

    Incredibly, despite the harsh conditions, Walter makes friends easily. I see him running and playing with the other children when I come back from work. He still gives me the hug that I look forward to every day.

    On Chanukah, I am excited to give Walter a piece of cake hidden in my handkerchief from a trade at work. It was more than I could really spare, so there will be meager rations for dinner, but we all wanted to make this sacrifice for Walter. His eyes light up when he sees the cake, but he doesn’t eat it right away, as I thought he would. He puts it carefully away in his pocket.

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