My Mother's Secret(9)
Author:J. L. Witterick

    I say to him, “Walter, don’t you want to eat it?”

    He says, “It looks so good, Papa, and I really want to.”

    “Then go ahead,” I say. “It’s all yours.”

    It is a regular piece of cake, but he hasn’t seen one in months and says, “It’s so big, Papa, and I love it, but my friend Sari has never had anything this special, and I want to share it with her tomorrow.”

    My first thought is, Don’t you know how hard it was for me to get this for you? Don’t you know that we’re all starving and that you should hoard what you can for yourself and your family?

    Deep inside of me, though, there is a part that is very proud of him. Without the war in the backdrop, I would have said, “Walter, that is very kind, and I am proud of you.”

    But there is a war, and his survival might depend on being selfish one day. What to do as his father?

    I say, “Sari is lucky to have a friend like you,” and the beautiful smile that comes back tells me that I did the right thing.

    I decide that his character is worth more than the price of the cake.

    I don’t want the war to diminish Walter as it has done to the rest of us.

    Chapter 27

    One day, a German officer gathers us in the open square within the ghetto and announces that they need workers for a brick factory. No experience is required and the workers will be given food for their families. This is the best news we have heard in some time.

    My brother and I look at each other. Very quietly he says to me, “We don’t know if this is true or not. Only one of us should go.”

    I have to agree.

    He continues. “You already have a job, Bronek. I should go.” He doesn’t have to say what else is on his mind because I already know what he is thinking: I trust you to protect the family. His thoughts remind me of my mother.

    That night, Ely, one of the men who works with me at the factory, comes to our house. His voice is shaky when he asks, “Bronek, can I speak to you privately?”

    I answer, “Yes, of course,” and we walk over to a quiet corner in the room.

    He says, “I can’t feed my family. I am watching my wife and daughter slowly starve to death. You know they only give us enough food to feed ourselves at the factory. I can’t save enough to keep us all alive for much longer. If I could go to this brick factory and get enough food for my family, it would really make a difference. Can you help me, Bronek? Can you tell the supervisor tomorrow that I was sick and couldn’t make it? They will believe it if you tell them.”

    At the factory, I had become the unspoken leader for the Jews from the ghetto. Whenever the supervisor needed anything done, he came to me and I organized the jobs. I conveyed a sense of confidence that I didn’t have but knew was essential.

    What Ely was asking was dangerous and would risk my position at the factory if we were found out. I wanted to help him, but I couldn’t. It was not because I was afraid of what would happen to me. It was what would happen to my family without me.

    “I’m sorry, Ely. I want to help you, but I can’t.”

    He doesn’t answer; he just looks at me with hope that I will change my mind, and that’s worse.

    As I see the slumped shoulders and the fragile frame of a good man leaving my house, I think I should run after him and tell him, “Yes, I will help you,” but I don’t.

    Early the next morning, we go to the pickup spot in the square. There is already a large crowd of men anxiously waiting.

    Dawid whispers to me, “I hope they can take everyone.”

    When the trucks arrive, men are shoving each other to get to the front of the line. The brick factory is outside of town, so it will be late when they return. From the square, I wave to Dawid and then walk with some of the men to our job.

    Ely walks with us and doesn’t look at me.

    Someone says, “Life is hard.”

    I agree, but what’s the alternative?

    • • •

    WHEN I RETURN that evening, the sun has already gone down.

    Many of us gather in the square to wait for the trucks to return. Although no one says a word, you can feel the tension as time goes by.

    It’s dark when the silence is broken by the sound of the siren that signals curfew. Everyone has to go home. That’s when we hear the guttural wail of a desperate woman. It’s a sound that can only come from agony, sorrow, and despair.

    We have all been betrayed.

    There are no trucks returning.

    My eyes water, and then uncontrollable sobs break from my body. My knees give, and I sink to the earth. It feels like someone has torn the limbs from my body. I can hardly breathe. The crying and hysteria all around me seem like background noise.

    Chapter 28

    It’s not until later that we find out the truth.

    There are people who come to the ghetto to trade for food and medicine. Their prices are steep, but they justify this by the risk they take and the bribes they pay.

    One of the traders tells us what really happened. “Don’t you know that the brick factory was bombed months ago? Your brother and the rest of the men were lined up against the wall and shot. Their bodies are still there with the broken bricks.”

    Oh, Dawid, this is not how we envisioned our lives would end, and it suddenly hits me that I must move quickly. Time is running out.

    I need to get the rest of my family out of here. Think clearly; don’t panic, I say to myself. Find a place to hide.

    I know at least twenty men who have worked for me. I am also close to the owner of the farm. I need to find someone who will help us.

    Why didn’t I think of this earlier? I ask myself this question over and over again because it might have meant saving my brother. But guilt is a luxury I cannot afford while my family still needs me, so I shrug it off.

    During the day, I walk as close to the edge of the ghetto as I can without arousing suspicion.

    Is there a place for all of us to escape?

    I need to find a spot that is not too far from where we are living, since it is dangerous to be out past curfew.

    I also need a location where the guards have less focus. My usual exit is too far for my family to make it by hiding in between the shadows of the buildings.

    After sizing up the situation, I realize that there is no choice but to cut the barbed wire to make our exit close to the house. Since we will never be using that escape route again, it won’t matter that the guards see it the next day and realize that we have escaped. It’s not good for the people left behind, but we can’t think that far.

    Late at night, I continue to sneak out where the ground is lower.

    I am careful because sneaking out of the ghetto is punishable by death. In fact, soldiers are instructed to shoot anyone who even looks like he is trying to escape. If I die, I know that Walter, Anelie, Biata, and Bryda have no chance.

    Risking all of our lives each night, I visit the homes of my friends.

    The stories are unique, but the pattern is the same.

    “You know I want to help you and your family, but we can’t risk it.”

    Everyone is sorry, but no one is sorry enough.

    The penalty for hiding Jews is death—not just to you, but to your entire family.

    In many ways, I could not blame them—even if I wanted to.

    Chapter 29

    One night, I am sliding under the barbed wire again when a German soldier unexpectedly comes around the corner of a nearby building. I freeze and am almost sure that our eyes meet, but it’s dark. For some reason, he turns around to walk in the direction that he has just come from.

    I am shocked. Did he not see me?

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