This Thursday is my mother’s yarzheit, the twentieth anniversary of her death at ninety-two. That she should pass from this world to the next peacefully in a bed in my house in New York at a relatively ripe old age is remarkable considering the tumultuous years of her life.
Born the youngest daughter in a Hasidic family in Krakow, Poland and one of 17 children, seven of whom had died from diseases that struck them down even before she was born, she chafed under the restrictions that her religiously strict father placed on her. Although she was devout and throughout the years that I knew her claimed she had a personal relationship with the Almighty – to whom she often spoke in what to my ears was a familiar and direct Yiddish liturgy – and reported to me about her life-changing encounters with His angels, she hinted at another side of herself when she told me the story of her dashed high school dreams.
After finishing her primary school years, she yearned to attend the Jewish Co-Educational Folk and Secondary School (the so-called ‘Hebrew Gymnazjum’ financed in 1908 by the General Zionists), but her strictly orthodox father insisted that she attend the Bais Yaakov seminary that Sarah Schenirer had recently founded in 1917 under the aegis of the Agudath Israel. Grudgingly she did so, but unhappy with what she considered the over-scrupulous and oppressively punctilious concern of Schenirer with the length of her sleeves and the height of her dress’s neckline rather than the nature of what she was learning, dropped out of the school and because her father would not relent to her wishes to go to the gymnazjum’s was forced to settle for the rudimentary cheder education she had received until transferring to Schenirer’s school. Throughout her life, she lamented her lack of education – a huge liability for someone whose native intelligence and initiative was clearly superior.
During her late adolescence, she was persuaded by one of her older sisters to attend a dance at which she met and struck up a conversation with the pianist in the band, a group called “Silver Jazz,” and he began to court her. The piano player came from a more assimilated Jewish family, had studied medicine for a year in Prague, and in 1930 when his father unexpectedly died, he had been forced back to Krakow and was refused admission there to continue his medical studies because of the Jewish quota in the Polish medical schools. He was now studying accounting and supplementing his income with the band. Until her father’s sudden death in 1933, my mother was reticent to go out with the piano player, but afterward, she increased their meetings. And when finally in 1938, he threatened to ‘kill himself’ if she refused to marry him, she gave in (‘out of pity,’ she always said laughingly) and married my father in 1938.
A year and half later the war exploded into their lives and the tumultuous years of her life began. Believing the rampant rumors that the invaders would single out the adult males for detention or worse but leave children and women alone, my father at my mother’s urging joined the widespread Jewish exodus of men and boys to the East and fled toward the Soviet border with one of my uncles and thousands of others, until the consequences of the Hitler’s blitzkrieg became clearer. Ultimately after several days of walking 25o kilometers during the third week of September he arrived in Lublin, which the Nazis occupied on the 18th and where on the 23rd, Yom Kippur that year, he, and dozens of other Jews, were forced to suffer the ignominy of some beatings and made to clean the local streets with toothbrushes. Father was too late to get to the Soviet side further to the East, where their troops were halting their advance into Poland at the banks of the Bug River. He had already decided life under the Soviets, separated from his wife and what remained of his family would be far from a paradise, and if he was going to remain under the Nazi occupation better to be at home. He turned back, managing to return to Krakow, throwing his lot in with the approximately 70,000 Jews who were by then living in the city, which the Nazis would turn into the seat of their General Government.
The gradual evolution of anti-Jewish rules and punishments that became the norm led to my parents’ transfer in September 1940 into the Jewish ghetto across the Vistula River in the Podgorze section of Krakow, where they shared a tiny apartment with several other families on 15 Romanowicza Street, less than half-an-hour’s walk from where they had been living and where both had been born. They shared space with my father’s mother and his older sister, Lola. My mother’s mother had been deported to Warsaw to stay with one of her sons, never again to be seen by her children in Krakow. Whenever my mother repeated this fact, she added that had her mother not gone there, “I would have died with her because I would have never left her side.”
What must she have felt to always repeat this phrase? Was it somehow connected to a guilt of surviving that in her mind seemed somehow made possible by her mother having left the ghetto before its liquidation so that her daughter would not have to die with her? Was it a strange jealousy that her brother had instead paid the price? I never asked, nor would I have dared.
With his business and accounting background Father was able to find work. For a while he worked for a company that provided coal for the houses in the ghetto. Later, he found work in the office of the Polcynk Emalia Company that would later become part of the German Enamel Products (Deutsche Emalwarenfabrik) that would shortly thereafter be taken over by Oskar Schindler. It would turn out to be a job that would save his life and my mother’s as they became part of the slave labor in Schindler’s factory.
My grandmother was slowly losing her mind and becoming ever frailer; in time she was taken into the provisional hospital that had been set up in the ghetto, where in March of 1942 she and many other patients were brutally murdered in their beds when the Nazis decided there was no need to keep ‘defectives’ alive. Shortly thereafter father’s sister Lola and my mother had been rounded up for deportation to a death camp. The so-called “liquidation,” of the ghetto and its residents had begun and she and my aunt stood in the nearby square waiting for the worst.
Years later I would repeatedly hear my mother’s riveting account of that day. It was one of a series of set pieces about her life under the Nazis that I would hear again and again, almost all of them becoming gradually a part of my own memory and merging with my sense of who I was. In this narrative, I could see her as she stood in the crowd that was waiting to be taken away while the ghetto was being emptied of its Jews. There were screams around her: people calling to their loved ones, the chilling sounds of babies and children who were being slaughtered outside the provisional hospital, many of them thrown brutally against the walls and murdered on the spot, and the shouted orders of the armed Nazis who were trying to make order in the chaos of this hell.
It was a deceptively beautiful day, the sun shining after a cold Polish winter, and my mother told me how she stood silently in line with Lola and refused to accept the idea that she was going to her certain death. Looking at the blue sky and bright sun of that early Spring day, she asked herself if it were possible that she would never again see that sun she loved so much and the blue sky but instead be thrown into the darkness of oblivion. While standing there, she felt what today we might call an “out of body experience.”
“I sensed an angel push me,” was how she always characterized it. Suddenly she broke from the queue and began running away from the square and toward the Jewish police headquarters housed in a building around the corner. She had sensed a certain sympathy from the widely hated Jewish chief of the Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst [Jewish ghetto police], Symche Spira and believed insanely that he might save her. As she fled the line, with my aunt screaming to her not to run, one of the guards began shooting at her. But after a few missed shots, he lowered the gun, probably supposing there was no real escape possible and that sooner or later she would be rounded up again and along with all the rest of the Jews inevitably be liquidated.
Inside the dark two-storied building just off the square my mother huddled in a corner of its inner courtyard unobserved: the building appeared deserted; probably the police were engaged in the roundups on this March 13th. Outside she could hear the screams where just down the street children and babies were being thrown against the walls of buildings and cobble stones, their heads smashed and their lifeless bodies piling up on the blood-soaked pavement. The shooting in and around the hospital could likely also be heard. The shouts of the gestapo and the wailing of the children and people they were rounding up kept her frozen inside for what seemed an interminable time.
She had no idea how long she hid there, sheltered from the hell unfolding just steps from where she crouched. Spira was not there. The empty headquarters ironically made for a temporarily safe hiding place. At last, when the screaming subsided and a hush settled over the nearby square, she concluded that the round-up was over and the transport finished. Carefully, she slipped out of the courtyard, hoping to get back to her apartment where she would wait for my father to return from his day breaking rocks at a stone quarry on the edge of the city. Yet no sooner did she exit the building when she was grabbed and brought back into the square where she was once again placed into the death line, barely a few paces from my aunt. Lola was aghast: “Lucia,” she said, “you escaped; why have you come back?”
But, shattered by the shock of what appeared to be her fatal mistake, my mother remained speechless and empty-eyed. How could this have happened? Did her angel not push her toward life? What did this all mean? While she stood there in stupefaction, catatonic and waiting to be taken to her death, a German officer selected her and three others to accompany him for some job for which he said he needed them. Once again, she left the line, taken around another corner where she was placed on a waiting wagon. After endless minutes on the wagon during which the square was cleared, the Nazi turned to her and the others and let them go; there was no job to be done. For whatever reason, he had decided to save a few Jews that day. By now the transport had left. At the end of the day my aunt went to her death and my grandmother was murdered, but my mother returned to life in her apartment. Several hours later, when he walked through the door my father, expecting the worst – on that day, he always told me, his hair turned grey – was stunned to see his wife.
“I’m alive,” she said simply. “But your mother is gone, and Lola was taken.”
All this and more enters my memory now as I light the candle and share her story so many years later. She survived those years, but she never fully left the memory of them behind. Now I am its custodian.